Every December, my in-box fills up with emails from people asking about their office holiday parties. Chief among their concerns: How optional or mandatory is it, really? Other questions on a lot of minds: Should you bring a date, or is it better to go solo? Can you drink, or should you teetotal it? What are you going to talk about for several hours while you stuff cookies in your mouth and pretend to be delighted to be there? Here’s everything you need to know about office-party etiquette to get you through the evening.
Rule 1: Go to your office holiday party for at least a little while, even if you’d rather not.
Especially if your office party is in the evening or over the weekend, you might rather spend that time doing something other than hanging out with the same people who you see all day at work. But it’s smart to at least put in an appearance, as long as you can do it without real hardship.
Even managers who claim the party is optional (which it definitely should be) often do care at some level if you skip it, and you risk coming across as disconnected from your job and your team. For the record, that’s silly — but it’s also the reality of how it will be perceived in many companies.
That said …
Rule 2: If you really can’t make it, don’t worry too much.
This is a busy time of year and if you genuinely have a conflicting obligation, it’s fine to simply explain that. No reasonable employer expects you to, for example, alter travel plans so that you don’t miss the company party.
One caveat here: The higher up in your organization you are, the more expected you might be to make every effort to attend. If you’re very senior, your absence might be more noticed, and you risk coming across as someone who wouldn’t deign to socialize with people lower down the corporate ladder.
Rule 3: Make a point of talking to people beyond your usual circle.
It’s easy at events like this to cluster with the co-workers you know well and spend the party around the same people you spend most of your work time with. But there are actually benefits to using the party as a chance to get to know a broader circle of people in your company. The next time you need something from IT or payroll, it can be helpful to know and have some good will with people on those teams. Plus, work social 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.
Rule 4: Make sure your boss sees you at the party.
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 you want to.
Rule 5: Don’t talk work (too much).
This is supposed to be a party, 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 not sure what to talk about if work is off the table, try movies, any series you’re binge-watching, weekend plans, pets, family, travel plans, and the food at the party. (“What on earth is in those speckled cheese blobs?” can be a good conversation starter.)
Rule 6: If you’re shy, give yourself a job to do.
If you’re dreading the party because clam up at large social events, you’ll probably feel more comfortable if you have some kind of party-related job to do, like managing the music or restocking the canapés. (Savvy introverts know this trick because it works at nonwork parties too.) So check with the party organizers and see if there’s anything you can do to help out.
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 to your side all night and require your attention to always be on them.
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 awfully dull.
Rule 8: Keep in mind that 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’s are real risks to doing that. You’re going to have to work with these people after the party ends, and it’s generally 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 start of a buzz, switch to water. You want your professional life to be controlled by Sober You, not Intoxicated You, charming as Intoxicated You may feel in the moment.
Rule 10: Thank the party organizers.
People who organize office parties will tell you that putting these events together 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 points (and may get rewarded by being allowed to take home leftover desserts!).
This piece has been updated.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.