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Most workers say that they'd rather skip the holiday party. Here's how to survive it.

How to succeed at your work party, even if you don't feel like going.
Image: A woman wearing a red and white Father Christmas hat at a party, with friends.
According to a recent survey, 90 percent of employees would take a bonus or extra vacation days rather than attend their work holiday party. Alamy Stock

This time of year brings a slew of festive shindigs, and you can probably count your workplace as one of the happy hosts. A new report by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc found that 80 percent of companies plan to throw a holiday party this year. These events tend to elicit great enthusiasm or extreme dread, and as a recent survey by Randstad showed, the overwhelming majority (90 percent) of employees would take a bonus or extra vacation days over a company soirée.

If you're one of the 90 percent who are decidedly in the dread category, it may be because you're unsure of how to act or use it to your professional advantage. What are the rules, so to speak, when it comes to company holiday parties? Office culture may lend a slight bent to things, but there are definite "dos and don’ts" across the board. We consulted a number of experts to compile the ultimate guide to succeeding at your work party, even when you don't feel like going.

1. Absolutely Attend

If you have social anxiety, or just aren’t that into the holiday party for whatever reason, you may be scrolling through your list of excuses to bail. Fight the urge to call it off and show up.

“Many people feel obligated and not very enthusiastic about the parties at the office, but we should attend and participate. Our attitude should be friendly, appreciative and outgoing. This is a great time for the company to get together and to build a stronger bond,” says Maryanne Parker, founder of Manor of Manners.

2. Battle Stress Before and During The Party

Think you’re the only feeling stressed, anxious, or just annoyed about the event? Not a chance.

“I attend a fair amount of holiday work parties, for my work and my partner’s, and honestly, they kind of suck,” says Kelsey Torgerson, a therapist and anxiety specialist. She shares three tips to help you get through the night:

  • Do a stress check before you enter the room. “Before you head into the party, check in with your stress level. Be aware of your anxiety cues. If your heart starts to beat heavily, your muscles feel tense or your breathing rate is fast, you’re going to have a much more difficult time concentrating. So, take a moment for breathing slowly, in through your nose, and out through your mouth, until your body feels more regulated.”
  • Make it a personal challenge (just for one night). “If you normally avoid talking to others, work parties can be a great way to challenge this social anxiety. Start by talking to co-workers you know. The group atmosphere makes it easier for more people to join in your conversation. If you’re standing in line with someone, strike up a conversation. Remember, many people feel uncomfortable at these types of parties, so they’re eager to have someone else bring up a topic. Even something as simple as, ‘Nice party!' can start things off.
  • Take a break. If you need to, you can always duck out for a restroom break to collect yourself.

3. Don't Drink More Than You Would At a Work Lunch

An open bar is often one of the biggest perks of a holiday bash, but there’s no negotiating that you’ve got to restrict your intake. Amy Gardner, a coach with Apochromatik, a professional counsulting firm, goes by the following rule: "Don’t drink more than you would in front of a prospective client. “

But you may not have to worry about it. The Challenger, Gray, & Christmas survey found that 47.8 percent of employers will serve alcohol this year, down from nearly 62 percent in 2016. We could see that number drop as awareness around sexual misconduct in the workplace continues to heighten.

3. If Spouses Are Invited, Get on the Same Page

If bringing a significant other is an option (check with HR if you're unsure), take the opportunity to blend worlds, but make sure you and your partner are playing by the same rules. "The last thing you want is your spouse complaining about your work hours, or telling your reports about all the shopping you two have planned thanks to your new raise," says Gardner. "To prevent this, don’t dump your spouse with people you don’t want to talk to, and agree on a signal if she or he is venturing into worrisome territory.”

Tempting as that new Tinder paramour may be, it’s generally not a good idea to invite someone you haven’t been dating for a while. “You want to bring someone you trust to represent you and your career. In many industries, spouses are expected to attend fundraising dinners, dinners with clients and their spouses, etc., so the way your significant other behaves at your work holiday party will reflect not only on both of you, but also on your judgment.”

4. Be A Secret Santa Who Plays It Safe

Many holiday parties feature a gift-giving exchange. Parker of Manor of Manners recommends that, if you’re playing Secret Santa, you know at least a little about the co-worker you’re gifting. If giving food or drink, make sure it’s something anyone can enjoy.

“If we are gifting food baskets, we need to make sure that there are not any health restrictions or allergies,” says Parker. Same goes for alcohol. If you’re unsure if the person drinks, don’t wrap up a bottle of Johnnie Walker.

You may not take offense to someone wishing you a Merry Christmas if, for instance, you only observe Hanukkah, but you should still use inclusive language. A simple “Happy Holidays” will do.

5. Don't Be Afraid to Have Some Face Time with the Boss

It can awkward to travel out of our usual work-friend circle, but this is a great opportunity to make more internal connections and hobnob with the higher-ups. Laura Handrick, HR Analyst, Fit Small Business recommends walking right up to the executive you’d like to talk to and introducing yourself.

“Say something like, 'Hi, I'm Julie from marketing, and I've looked forward to meeting you!' And if they're engaged in a conversation, don't be discouraged. Stand next to the executive, listen and politely show interest but don't interrupt. Eventually they'll turn to you and you can say, 'I'm so sorry to interrupt, but really wanted to shake hands with the founder of our company.' That shows both confidence and self-control, which are impressive to higher ups.”

If that sounds terribly intimidating, have some talking points in mind.

“Have three topics you’re prepared to talk about and make sure it’s not politics, religion, sexual harassment scandals or problems at work,” says Dory Wilson, founder of Your Office Mom. “For a social event, keep it light and focus on holiday plans, hobbies and interests. If you notice that people keep moving on, that’s a cue you need to change up your talking points.”

Remember: Be Gracious, People Put A Lot Into This

"These office events are work to put on and often big expenses,” says Gardner. “When you arrive, thank the staff who put it together as well as your boss.”

A thank you note or e-mail the next day is also not a bad idea. After all this party is a gift to you and all your co-workers, and a way of showing you that your work is appreciated — even if you’d much rather be at home watching Netflix.


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