Often dreaded, more often regretted, the office Christmas party can be a potential minefield, with the twin threats of social and professional humiliation combining to form an explosive deterrent.
The stakes are certainly high, but if you can manage to lay off the sambuca and steer clear of the photocopier, then office parties present a great opportunity to put yourself at the top of the management wish list.
With that in mind, we surveyed some experts about how to avoid festive faux pas and fire the starter gun on your next promotion. Here are their top tips:
1) Pre-game is key
As social sensei Dale Carnegie once wrote: “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours,” so a quick brush up on important names, current affairs and likely topics will help you sail through the small talk. You could also have a quick scan on social networking sites/ recent tweets to seek out your colleagues’ interests in advance.
“Having a mental list of good opening gambits is a great way to prepare,” says “Britain’s Leading Etiquette Expert” William Hanson. “Think what is appropriate for colleagues you are friends with, colleagues you haven’t had much to do with, and your superiors.”
And for the forgetful partygoers out there, president and founder of CareerPlanner.com Michael T. Robinson recommends loading the company phone directory onto your mobile device to use as a discreet reminder of names.
2) Don’t play it cool
There’s nothing to gain from being self-conscious or aloof, so demonstrate you’re a fun team-player and embrace the party spirit. If it’s a costume party, make sure you show some effort. Dancing, pull off a few moves. Karaoke, get up and rock the mike. Showing a secure sense of humor certainly won’t do your stock any harm and it’s a great way to break the ice.
If you’re more of a conversationalist than a performer there are still steps you can take to widen your circle. “Don’t get stuck only talking to the people you know,” says Adrienne Graham, founder of Empower Me! Corporation. “You already work with them daily, so get out and make new connections you can later follow up on.”
3) Go solo
Do your spouse and yourself a favor by giving them the night off. They don’t want to be dragged along for inspection by a room full of strangers spouting crappy in-jokes, so make your excuses (“Oh, it’s their office party tonight as well” usually does the trick) and be done with it. There are also professional benefits to going stag as Charlotte Weeks, the career guru behind weekscareerservices.com, points out: “It can be hard enough to break the ice with someone new, without the added pressure of feeling responsible for another person.”
Taking this hurdle off the track absolves you from an evening of awkward introductions and leaves you with a better chance to network. It also enables you to maintain a helpful layer of mystique and ensures the pair of you won’t be cowed into a painful dinner with Al and June from accounts.
4) The camera is not your friend
Much like a dog, a photo is not just for Christmas so think twice before going for that “Gang Nam style” pose which will inevitably spend the best part of 2013 displayed proudly above the office copier by merciless colleagues. And just in case they’re the jealous, firing type, it’s probably best to apply a 5-ft buffer for any shots featuring you and your boss’s spouse.
“Your actions will have consequences,” William warns. “And whilst it may be a social environment, it is still work and your boss is still your boss.”
5) First rule of work party, don’t mention work
Show you have a life outside the office (and an alternative sentence starter to “About last month’s figures…”) by filling the evening with more convivial topics. For Michael, this is a great chance to capitalise on your pre-game efforts and forge some valuable allegiances. “People are more likely to help people they like or know, so figure out who you might need in the future and just spend a few relaxing moments with them,” he says. “And it sounds obvious, but don’t be boring.”
If this last point does apply to you (I feel your pain), there’s no shame in greasing the wheels of conversation with a little creative storytelling, so long as you keep it credible.
(MORE: The Art of the Bad Deal)
6) Let your clothes do (some of) the talking
You want to show you’re a well-dressed stylish individual, so it’s important to make an effort, but always keep it classic and understated. Bearing in mind the camera factor and the propensity of Christmas Party mishaps to remain hot topics well into June, it’s probably best to save the Saturday Night Fever outfit for the next convention, even if you are shooting for the much-fabled ‘ironic’ look.
7) Don’t be a scrooge
As we’ve established, this one night will be discussed for many more to come so it’s worth injecting some festive cheer into your wallet. If there’s a secret santa arrangement then straddle that balance between the price limit and an unacceptable overspend — nothing outrageous, but just enough to ensure yours is at the classier end of the gift spectrum. Meanwhile, get acquainted with the bar staff and treat your favored colleagues/those with a say in your future to a couple of drinks. Not only will you find yourself hailed as a generous soul, but you’ll probably be known as the party starter and all manner of irrational compliments which accompany the offer of free alcohol. But as William rightly points out, you don’t want to overdo it. “Be careful you are not seen to be trying too hard, as that can be equally as bad!”
8) Post-game is just as important
Many workers blot their copybook by forgetting that the office party is intended to be a treat and not a form of torture. Show your consideration by thanking the organisers for their efforts – William recommends a handwritten note or card – a gesture that will make them feel good and do your reputation no harm at all. Meanwhile, Adrienne thinks it’s crucial to build on any office party successes while the iron’s still hot. “Be sure to follow up after parties, especially if a decision maker has shown they’re interested in taking the conversation further,” she says. “Making the right impression on the higher ups can open many doors.”