When Is a Party Not a Party?

When I was younger, I had an odd fascination with Christmas party scenes in movies and television, particularly the office parties. It represented some secretive environment that children were very rarely welcomed to or included in, and I was curious.

Years after attending my fair share of those parties, Christmas and otherwise, my fascination with their portrayal in media hasn't changed but my perception has. In anticipation of the holiday party season, I loaded up the episode of Mad Men that documented the pre HR world of the office fete. Watching Christina Hendricks' Joan lead a sexually charged Conga line through the corridors, past a couple shamelessly attempting to move to second base, I began to think of all of the ways to make it through the Christmas party (and any other after-hours office event) with your dignity and career intact.

Here are the gentle reminders that we could all use to our advantage:

It's not happy hour so drink cautiously or not at all.  Chances are there will be drinks with stronger alcohol content than a wine spritzer so this is the perfect time to respect your limits. If you're a one drink maximum kind of girl, sip slowly or ask the bartender to mix you a juice cocktail with a splash of grenadine. Having a hard time with this one? Think about all of the happy hours that you attend with your co-workers and the reason that you rarely invite the bosses!

Don't make any major announcements. You may be a valued part of the company but this party was planned with more people than you in mind. Don't steal the thunder of TEAM appreciation by making any announcements that center around YOU.

Don't debut your office romance. Most companies frown upon fraternization so this could set you up for post party reprimands that you don't need on the corporate record. The best rule is to avoid any actions that will make you the center of ongoing gossip. When all else fails this falls into the "major announcements" category.

Wear a statement dress without making the wrong statement. Even creative office environments require a tasteful wardrobe, so keep this in mind when shopping. You can have fun with bling, shine, and shimmer but remain sensible with how much leg or cleavage you expose, the boss’s wife (or your female boss) will not appreciate you grabbing attention with Versace's latest plunging neckline. A simple question when you’re in the dressing room would be, “Is this a wow or whoa moment?”

Use this opportunity to actually be social--Work the room. Most of us have office connections that are more developed than others so take this time to get to know the people that work in other departments. Demonstrate your ability to “reach across the aisle” by striking up conversation with the snarky girl in Accounting, if you find that you don’t really have anything in common at least you build a reputation as someone that is willing to work with others (I call this putting a little money in the promotion bank).

Arrive late and leave early. While this may seem like some sort of outdated advice from a pretentious Real Housewife, it’s fitting for business. Have you ever come to work the day after an event only to hear water cooler talk about what happened “after you left?” This is why strategic entrance and exit is an attendance must for any work related soiree. The danger of showing up when the doors open is that it allows too much time to get comfortable in an environment that requires you to be consciously guarded. Think of any reality show that requires people to live together. After the first few hours in the house, it becomes harder for them to disguise any flaws in their personality. If the event is five hours long and you are there for all five you increase the chances of relaxing too much and let’s face it, you have to see these people on Monday. Plan to meet with friends afterward to assure that you will be there long enough to demonstrate participation but short enough to avoid any situational faux pas.

Go. Most companies plan their parties at an accessible time for all employees with an unstated expectation of attendance. What do you have to lose by donating a few hours of time? Employees often think of the party as a forced event or use lack of attendance as a form of protest when they are unhappy without recognizing that this may be the one time of year that you have to engage with leadership in less formal setting.

Express your gratitude. Make sure that you greet the organizer (usually the overworked Executive Assistant) and compliment her on the location, décor, or food, this will go a long way with the person that values her most in leadership—yes, politics are everywhere! Thank your boss for the invitation out and choose something to reference that he has helped you with during the year noting how much you appreciate it. Management rarely hears “thank you” so when they do, it’s memorable and goes a long way to developing rapport with the person that hires and fires.

This isn’t speed dating. A few years ago I attended a party as a guest and realized that they had hired a cute local radio DJ, who also had the reputation for being a fan of the ladies. Any woman within his line of distance was a target for his casual winks and flirting. The next day he posted a Facebook status about his “wild after party” accompanied by a few late night pics of an employee in a compromising situation. She could have benefitted from the advice of never closing the party. The same advice applies to leaving with a co-worker; this could create a pile of regret that you don’t want to deal with the next day.

Don’t use this as a first date. I’ve never been a fan of using deeply personal or highly professional occasions as a first outing, there are just too many unknown variables. Taking the guy that you met online to any event that includes your boss or co-workers is risky. Find out if you like him before you force your colleagues to. Additionally, anyone that you associate with is a reflection of you on all levels. Do you really want to deal with the awkward moment of taking the guy who does better at pig roasts to a formal dinner? If you just met him, he’s not worth any potential disaster.

Network surreptitiously. The best career managers are always connection ready. While the CEO may be a visible corporate figure head, they aren’t usually accessible, particularly if you work in a large corporation, so your Christmas social may be the perfect time to casually introduce yourself. This is also the perfect opportunity to genuinely get to know your boss. Networking doesn’t have to be a formal conversation about how the company is trading and what the future plans are for your department, they have these conversations all of the time. If you want to be impressive, find out what interests them and exchange bits of information that allows him to get to know you better. This can be done without falling into “TMI” zone.

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Ultimately, you should have an enjoyable night with your colleagues but treat it like work with a little more laughter. It may not seem fair but anything that you do in a casual setting can and will be used against you in the office halls. What are some of your favorite holiday party do's and dont's?