The dos and don’ts of holiday work parties

Don't be a fool at your holiday work party - have fun, but remember, these are your colleagues.

These people aren’t your friends – they’re your colleagues. It’s a mantra worth repeating over and over from the moment you lace up those “completely appropriate for a work party” dancing shoes and head out to celebrate another year of averted market crashes to the nights end, when you hide your hiccups and catch a cab.

“This is work. These are you bosses and colleagues. These people can make decisions about what projects and promotions you get next,” says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting for Ivey Business School at Western University.

And for this reason, your holiday work party might be littered with more nuances than you think. We were inspired by a recent Wall Street Oasis thread about etiquette at an intern’s first holiday party to lock down some of the basic dos and don’ts. So, in the name of spreading (responsible) good cheer, we’ve compiled a list of how to act at holiday work parties.

Do read the invitation

Not all office parties are the same. If you’re new to a place and heading out for that first holiday soiree, ask around and get a feel for the vibe before you show up. Some parties are more sit-down affairs whereas others are themed or more casual. Make sure you read the invite before you head out the door.

Don’t mistake mandatory for optional attendance

We’re not coming from a fear-of-missing-out perspective on this. If your boss says he’s bringing the team up to his cottage for a little get together, the worst thing you could do is blow it off. Even if it’s at the pub around the corner or an upscale bistro down the road, no-shows stand out and are apt to suggest a certain thing or two about your ability to be a team player. Know the difference between optional and mandatory.

Do pick class over clash when deciding what to wear

Everyone loves a bad holiday sweater but it’s best to save your sense of irony for your peers.

“You want everyone there to have little reason not to respect you and your judgment…whether you respect them or not, is not part of your decision making!” cautions Irwin-Foulon.

So what to wear?

“While celebratory and a sense of occasion is important to demonstrate, I always recommend that you err on the side of conservative: polished shoes, ironed shirts, minimal cleavage, and skirt lengths that your great-grandmother wouldn’t gasp at, are all ways to ensure you present as a serious professional,” she says.

Don’t drink like it’s the end of the world

“I get that the invitation says it is a party, but it is a WORK party,” says Irwin-Foulon. “People will remember bad behaviour and you don’t want to leave anyone thinking you are anything less than a serious professional.”

Just cause Dave from payroll has made it a holiday tradition to do a tequila shot every time someone quotes the latest Michael Lewis book, doesn’t mean you need to follow suit.

“Use discretion, and consider asking the bartender for a faux cocktail if you are self-conscious about looking like a party pooper as you limit your intake,” adds corporate recruiting expert.

Do engage your bosses

“A party is a great opportunity to introduce yourself to someone you admire or want to meet, and to get some visibility as a real person, with interests outside of work,” she says. “Thanking them for hosting the party, congratulating them on a recent announcement or outcome are both great places to start after you introduce yourself.”

After that you can veer towards current events and viewpoints.

“These are good places to keep the attention off of you, but the conversation going,” she says.

Don’t overdo the whole “selling you boss on an idea” thing

“Remember that senior folks are people too, and engaging about things other than just work or projects they are a part of is always welcomed,” says Irwin-Foulon.

But don’t overdo it.

“Have a plan for who you want to connect with before you arrive, and at the other end, know when to leave the conversation so you don’t appear to be sucking up or lacking the social graces to know that brief is the name of the game at these things,” she says.

Do end the night on a high note

Whether it’s your first holiday party with the company or your 15th, there’s always ways to stand out without being the office joke. Be thoughtful, make some new friends and try to end the night on a high note (which doesn’t mean dancing on a table).

But don’t toast, just don’t

“If you must toast, only do so if you have been asked by someone senior – it is usually their job, after all,” says Irwin-Foulon. “Keep it clean, mixed company appropriate and know nothing is more irritating to the senior team than a junior colleague stepping up and doing this, when the senior folks have a plan on timing and content that they aren’t aware of.”

Try showing your commitment via a martini-fueled soliloquy and you might find yourself abhorred.

“This shows a lack of judgment and understanding of your role as a party guest,” adds Foulon-Irwin.

Ultimately, work parties are a chance to get to know your bosses, let loose (a little bit) with your colleagues and make some memories. But as Irwin-Foulon suggests, don’t forget that “this is work.”

“Never think this is a party with your work colleagues,” she adds. “Your reputation depends on it.”

Andrew Seale

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based business writer who contributes frequently to Yahoo Canada Finance, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and The Toronto Star.