The office holiday party or other business holiday entertaining can be an opportunity to further your career, ruin your reputation, and everything in between. The smart partygoer knows how to make the most of the situation, and even have a good time. An invitation to a holiday function should be taken very seriously and you should attend unless you have an ironclad excuse. Carefully consider what to wear, whom to take, what to eat, whether to drink, whom to talk to, what to talk about, and when to arrive and leave. There is also the question of whether give a gift and, if so, to whom, what kind, and how expensive? The party planners have further considerations, including how to limit any possibility for legal liability for their guests’ behavior.
This is business, and that means you must wear businesslike party attire. While you should dress up from your everyday office uniform, be sure to avoid anything suggestive or silly. Determine, as best you can, how casual or formal the event will be, and dress accordingly. The wrong outfit can dispel, at a single glance, all your work at building credibility in the firm. Err on the side of conservatism.
Clarify who is invited to the affair. You do not want to bring someone uninvited, nor be the only one without an escort. Remember that your guests reflect upon you, therefore, if your intended date tends to party a little too hearty, have a serious talk beforehand. If you are not confident that he/she can behave creditably, bring another friend or come solo. This is not the best time to bring someone you are just getting to know; you do not want to be surprised by your guest’s behavior. Delicate issues regarding bringing a guest of a different race, same gender, or various relationship designations need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
You will be constantly observed during business entertaining, so watch how, what, and how much you eat. If you think you will be starving by the time you get to the party, have a little something to eat beforehand. (That will help you handle any alcohol you may consume, as well.) At a cocktail-type party, you may need to eat standing up. Circulate throughout the party and return to the food periodically. Try to keep one hand free to shake hands.
To limit your alcohol, ask for a “virgin” version of a mixed drink, or toss a slice of lemon or lime into a cocktail glass of sparkling water. It looks festive, and no one needs to know. One, or—at most—two glasses of the “real thing” will last you the whole evening if you alternate with a non-alcoholic beverage. Keep your glass in your left hand so that your handshake is not wet and cold. Avoid salty or greasy foods that may make you want to drink more. Foods that are high in carbohydrates or protein will help absorb the alcohol. If necessary, keep an eye on your guest’s alcoholic intake.
Holiday business entertaining is an excellent opportunity to chat with people you do not spend much time with at the office, including those higher up in the organization. If your firm is large, do some research beforehand and make a mental note of those you want to meet. You want to get to know your fellow partygoers on a more social basis, but do not discuss overly personal matters, and do not gossip. This is not the time to complain about your job, ask for a raise, or have a long, detailed business discussion. Make sure your jokes are clean and not offensive to any group. Do not say anything suggestive, do not flirt and, other than shaking hands as a greeting, do not touch!
Do not monopolize the conversation; after an appropriate time, excuse yourself and move on. Mingle and try to meet as many new people as you can, making the appropriate introductions of your guest. Try to provide some information along with the introduction to get the conversation going. Be sure to talk to the host, or party planner, at some point during the evening and express your thanks for the event.
Business entertaining is not the time to be fashionably late. Arrive shortly after the event is scheduled to begin, and leave when the festivities are beginning to ebb. Do not close down the party, unless you are expected to help with clean up. If you have committed to follow-up with anyone at the party, such as getting them some information, jot a quick reminder as soon as you leave.
Gift giving is another holiday quandary. Usually, subordinates do not give superiors gifts, but an assistant should receive one. Unless you are giving presents to all of your peers or staff members, present gifts privately. Gifts should not be too cheap, expensive, or personal, and do not give a gag gift unless that is specifically agreed upon ahead of time. Never give anything sexual in nature or which can be perceived as derogatory to any group. It is best to avoid giving alcoholic beverages. Choose something businesslike, conservative, and tasteful.
If you are on the holiday event planning committee, you have further issues to consider. Many firms have scaled back their celebrations due to economic and security concerns, and some have elected to give to charity the money they would have spent on more elaborate holiday events. Be sensitive to the diversity of your workplace and choose a non-religious moniker, such as “holiday” or “winter” celebration. Keep any decorations neutral and schedule the event so as not to interfere with the observances of any religious group. Select a site that is easily accessible to all members of the firm and their guests.
To avoid liability problems, provide sufficient security, redistribute the firm’s sexual harassment and alcohol and substance abuse guidelines a week or so ahead of time, and instruct security personnel and designated managers to keep an eye out for drinking or behavior problems. Inviting guests and family members can have a calming effect on the party atmosphere. Keep the venue well lit (though not too bright); ban the mistletoe, and nix sitting on Santa’s lap. Keep the music up-tempo and avoid roasts or skits, which can sometimes get out of hand. Take steps to discourage over-imbibing, which can lead to liability. For example, distribute limited drink tickets and offer cab vouchers or other transportation, if necessary.
With proper preparation, business holiday entertaining can be fun and profitable.