How to Survive the Office Holiday Party

Office interior. Open space .
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

After going on hiatus at the height of the pandemic, office holiday parties are back — and with them, questions from employees about rules for navigating them. Are office parties optional, or just “optional” as in “we can’t fire you for skipping, but it will be frowned upon”? Is it okay to bring a date, or better to go solo? How much drinking is safe, if any? And what are you supposed to talk about with these people for several hours while you frantically eat cookies and down overly sweet punch? Here’s everything you might want to know about office-party etiquette, to get you through the evening and ensure your reputation remains intact the following day.


Rule 1: Go to your office holiday party for at least a little while, even if you’d rather not.

The most frequent question I get asked about office holiday parties is whether you really have to attend, especially if it’s being held in the evening or over the weekend. The answer, I’m sorry to say, is yes. You should at least put in an appearance if you can do it without real hardship.

Even managers who say the party is optional often care on some level if you skip it (especially if you skip it multiple years in a row), and you risk being perceived as being less engaged with your job or your team. For the record, that’s b.s. — managers should look at the quality of your work to see how engaged you are, not your off-hours attendance record — but it’s the reality in a lot of companies.

That said …


Rule 2: If you really can’t make it, don’t worry too much.

This is a busy time of year. If you genuinely have a conflicting obligation, simply explain that. No reasonable employer expects you to, for example, alter holiday travel plans so that you don’t miss the company party.

One caveat here: The higher up in your organization you are, the more you might be expected to make an effort to attend. If you’re senior-level, your absence might be conspicuous, and you risk coming across as someone who wouldn’t deign to socialize with people lower down the corporate ladder. Obviously that doesn’t mean you need to blow off a family wedding to be there, but think twice before missing it for, say, drinks with friends.


Rule 3: Make a point of talking to people outside your usual circle.

It’s easy at events like this to cluster with the co-workers you know well and spending the party around the same people you spend most of your day with. But there are benefits to using the party as a chance to get to know more people in your company. The next time you need something from IT or payroll, it’ll be helpful to know and have some good will with people on those teams. Plus, work events can be an opportunity to build relationships with people above you, which can pay off if those higher-ups are staffing a project you’d be interested in — they’re more likely to think of you later on if you’ve connected previously.


Rule 4: Make sure your boss sees you there.

You don’t have to stay at the party for hours if you don’t want to, but before you leave, make sure your boss sees you. Say hello and talk briefly, so that she doesn’t inadvertently think you skipped out. In fact, as long as you spend a few minutes talking to your boss, you can probably get away with leaving after only an hour if that’s what you prefer.


Rule 5: Don’t talk work too much.

This is supposed to be a social occasion, not a company meeting, so resist any urge to pull your co-workers into detailed conversations about the status of the fundraising report or the plan for next month’s product launch. You’ll annoy people by making them talk about work when they’re trying to relax, and you’ll miss out on the whole purpose of the party, which is to let you socialize with colleagues in a more relaxed setting.

If you’re drawing a blank, try sharing a movie you recently watched, any series you’re binging, weekend or travel plans, pets you have, and, if all else fails, the food at the party. (“What do you think is in these speckled cheese blobs?” is a reliable conversation starter.)


Rule 6: If you’re shy, give yourself a job to do.

If social events make you nervous, give yourself a job to do. Offer to manage the music, restock the canapés, or help the organizers hand out gifts. (This trick applies to non-work parties too.) If you can’t find any tasks to help with, assign yourself the “job” of talking to at least one person you don’t already know, someone who looks shy or bored. They’ll probably welcome the conversation.


Rule 7: Be cautious if you bring a date.

Some office parties are strictly employees only. But if your company welcomes plus-ones, be thoughtful about who you bring. It can be risky to bring someone you just started dating (whose judgment and behavior is still untested in high-stakes situations like a professional event) or someone who will stick by your side all night and take your attention away from the networking you’re there to do at least a bit of.

Also, if your significant other isn’t enthused about attending, let them off the hook! Attending a work party that isn’t your own can be dull or uncomfortable.


Rule 8: Ultimately, it’s a business event.

Despite having the word “party” in the name, this is still a work event. It’s a more relaxed work event, yes, and there’s cake and often alcohol, but you’re still expected to adhere to reasonably professional standards of behavior. And even if your company is one that encourages party attendees to let loose, there are risks to doing that. You’re going to have to work with these people after the party ends, and it’s better that they think of you as “the one with the insane Excel skills” and not “the one who passed out on the copier at Christmas.”

For that reason …


Rule 9: Watch how much you drink.

Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and you want your inhibitions very much intact when you’re around co-workers. It’s fine to have a drink or two, but if you feel yourself getting even the beginnings of a buzz, switch to water. You want your professional life to be managed by Sober You, not Intoxicated You, charming as Intoxicated You may feel in the moment.


Rule 10: Thank the party organizers.

Organizing office parties is often thankless and come with lots of demands, lots of complaints, and very little gratitude. If you’re the gracious person who seeks the organizers out and thanks them for the work they put into the party, you’re likely to rack up serious brownie points (and may get rewarded by being allowed to take home leftover brownies!).

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here.)

How to Survive the Office Holiday Party