Holiday office parties can be lots of fun, but they're also legendary for their ability to derail careers and inspire workplace derision that can linger for months. Keep in mind that you can let loose and have a good time with your fellow colleagues, but not at the expense of your professional reputation.
Here are seven notorious office party blunders, from having one cocktail too many to spreading office gossip, along with advice on how you can avoid each one of them.
This story by former columnist Liz Ryan was first published in November 2012.
1. Drinking Too Much
It's OK to indulge in a cocktail at the holiday office party, just not the way you might drink at a nonwork-related social gathering.
At one company gala I organized, a partygoer got so hammered that his reason deserted him. "I hope I didn't hurt my relationship with the CEO," he said as I helped him into his coat and then a cab. "What do you mean?" I asked. "I just told him that I had some ideas he really needs to hear," slurred the young man. "What kind of ideas?" I responded. "Well, for one thing, there's no reason the handicapped parking spaces need to be so close to the front entrance," the guy said. "What did the CEO say when you told him that?" I responded. "He told me to explain my idea in an e-mail to him and copy you on it." I immediately told the young worker that he wouldn't be sending any such message and to go home, rest up and apologize to the CEO on Monday morning.
Advice: Eat before you get to the shindig, even if you don't expect to drink. The heightened level of anxiety and social pressure at many a holiday office party has put drinks in the hands of people who normally abstain.
Sip slowly, and switch to non-alcoholic beverages if you feel the need to keep a glass in your hand. If you've loosened up completely thanks to liquid courage and suddenly feel compelled to tell your boss that you think he's doing a terrible job, don't. You still want to have a job in the morning. And just in case, make sure you've got a backup plan for getting home. It's far better to leave your vehicle overnight than to drive when you're not fully coherent.
2. Dressing Inappropriately
It's easier for men to dress for a holiday office party. All they have to do is throw on a festive tie for the work day, and it'll carry them through the evening. Ladies, however, have it a bit tougher. They've got to look stylish without crossing into the "club wear" zone.
One year, on the day of my then-employer's holiday party, I walked into the ladies room to find a trio of young co-workers with shopping bags. "Want to see our holiday party dresses?" they asked. Sure enough, one woman's dress was so short that it left nothing to the imagination. "What would you do if you had to bend over?" I asked her. "Do you think it's too short?" she replied. "Definitely," I said, "Your reputation at work isn't based just on what happens in the office. If you wear that dress tonight, it's a huge branding statement for you. It's your choice, but I'd advise against it." Another one of the young ladies happened to have an extra dress that was cute and appropriate for the event; the switch was made.
Advice: When in doubt about the appropriateness of your outfit for an office function, use discretion. Save the "weekend wear" for a night on the town with friends or a date with your significant other -- not the company holiday bash. For women, a modest dress or skirt or slacks paired with a blouse will do. You can jazz it up with jewelry or a scarf. For men, you can't go wrong with a suit. If that's overdoing it, however, a pair of slacks with a dress shirt and tie or sweater should suffice.
3. Talking About Religion
Religion is probably the worst topic to discuss in this type of setting, although politics is giving it a run for its money these days. Be smart and avoid both, but in particular avoid getting in a heated debate on religious views.
At one office holiday party I attended, the DJ began playing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." A fellow co-worker proceeded to ask the small group of us standing around if we knew that Green had since become a pastor. The majority of us replied no, and the same co-worker continued on with, "Have you found Jesus, yourself?" After a few seconds of awkward silence, the group dispersed.
Advice: Religion is not suitable fodder for any work-related event, period. Employers work hard to make their employees feel comfortable, and even off-campus events are no exception to the standard. There is nothing wrong with using "Merry Christmas" to greet a fellow co-worker, but don't be surprised if your colleague responds with, "Well, I celebrate Kwanzaa, but thanks." In general, it's best to stick with a nonreligious holiday frame of mind. There are many other topics to discuss, from world affairs to sports to the stock market to your families.
4. Spreading Office Gossip
You're at an office party -- of course you're going to dish all of the juicy work gossip you know, right? Wrong. At the company holiday celebration where the alcohol is flowing, even innocent gossip can be misinterpreted, resulting in you being branded as jealous, petty or inappropriate.
At one party I hosted for a company, two young men were comparing notes out loud when I stopped by to chat: "Accounting, then HR, then Sales -- IT last," said one of the guys, and the other responded with, "Reverse the positions of Sales and HR." "What's the list about?" I inquired and one of them said, "We're ranking the departments by the hotness of the girls in them." "That's magnificent," I replied and quickly followed with, "Let's not do that at the holiday party, guys, OK?"
Advice: To avoid turning the holiday office party into a gossip-fest, be sure to have a few conversation-starters ready to go. Make sure you've read an issue or two of a news magazine or talk about sports or discuss that really good film review you just read. While work functions are famous for awkward conversation, that's no excuse for letting the dialog veer off into "let's talk about people" territory. This is a time to learn something new about your colleagues, not spread office rumors -- a very bad destination if you value your reputation at the office.
5. Mocking Your Boss
Here's a quick way to shave away half of your hard-earned professional-credibility points: Go to the office holiday party and mock your boss in front of a group of co-workers. It can’t possibly be that hard to make it through three hours of pleasant banter without behaving like a clown, right? Even if your boss is oblivious to the holiday party goings-on, lots of other people in authority may not be.
In one case, two employees practiced their best "give barking orders like the boss" impressions not even 15 feet from where the guy was sitting at the bar. "Dudes, I know it's a party and it's fun to relax, but you're insulting our colleague," I quickly interjected. "It's never polite to talk behind another person's back and especially in a party setting, don't you agree?"
Advice: Vent about your boss somewhere -- anywhere -- other than at a company-sponsored function. I've seen one too many employees let a goofball alter ego out of hiding at the office holiday party and soon regret it. Apart from potentially offending someone or getting in trouble with your manager, you're sending a loud message about your own professionalism (or lack thereof).
6. Dirty Dancing
It's fine to dance at your company's holiday soiree. Just be sure to check out some of those horrendous dancing videos on YouTube beforehand for a primer on what not to do. Uninhibited dancing at an office party is far worse than many career-limiting moves in that it's not only professionally hazardous but also embarrassing on a personal level.
While working for a former employer, a co-worker's more enthusiastic than skillful break dancing ended abruptly when his head slammed into another dancer's knee.
Advice: If you're planning to dance at the office party, do it tastefully and keep the word "understated" top of mind. Don't slow dance with anyone you're not already romantically involved with, and if you're drinking, ask a non-drinking friend to tap you on the shoulder when it's time for you to make a graceful exit from the dance floor.
7. Hitting on Co-Workers
A holiday party is a great place to get into casual conversations with office mates and their guests. It's a terrible place to make romantic advances.
Once, a young woman asked my opinion of the fellow she'd been chatting up. "Do you think Brad is cute?" she asked. Shocked, I responded: "Do you think I'm going to answer that question, especially as you're here making some kind of momentous decision about Brad at the end of the office holiday party?" She went on about how attractive she thought he was, but I eventually cut her off, "You're on your own, but haven't you heard of the horrible regrets that people have the day after their office holiday parties?" She admitted to having heard a story or two. "You can always chat with Brad again on Monday in less-heated conditions," I said. The young lady left alone.
Advice: Before you make a move on a co-worker you've been admiring for months, ask yourself, What do I want people saying about me when I walk into the office on Monday morning? That should be enough to help keep you on the straight and narrow all night long. Rely on good judgment and an extra dose of conservatism to counteract any romantic yearnings spawned by the festive atmosphere.
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