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Holy lampshades! Holiday office parties make a comeback

Unpack the reindeer sweater, ‘tis the holiday party season again.

After years forswearing year-end celebrations because of belt tightening, more companies are feeling festive enough to host holiday gatherings, according to several recent surveys.

Close to 83 percent of 100 human resources managers said their companies will host an event this year, including 10 percent who didn’t have a party last year because of the economy, according to preliminary results from the annual Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., holiday party survey.

Don’t expect an extravaganza. Few companies are going back to the champagne and caviar affairs common before the recession.

Instead, they’re opting for more modest or original activities -- a potluck lunch, after-hours party at the office, or volunteering at a food bank followed by dinner at a local restaurant. “There appears to be a move from the more traditional night out, with dinner and a dance band,” says Robert Hosking, executive director at Robert Half International’s OfficeTeam division, which conducts an annual office party survey. “I think companies are becoming more creative with this, and allowing employees to come back with recommendations.”

Most people like holiday parties. At companies that hold parties, 79 percent of managers and 75 percent of employees say they enjoy them, according to OfficeTeam’s 2012 office holiday party survey.

But even if office parties turn you into Mr. Grinch, you can’t afford to skip them, says business etiquette expert Barbara Pachter. “Think of it as a business opportunity,” she says, “because the people you meet may be interviewing you in three or six months” for a new position or promotion.

If your company is throwing some kind of shindig this season, here’s the experts’ advice for making the most of it:

Don’t talk shop. Conversations about work are OK, in moderation. Parties are a chance to get to know co-workers on a different level.  “You can talk about what people are doing for the holidays, what vacations they have coming up,” movies, plays, or sports you or your kids play, Pachter says. “Then you have a common bond.” Three things Pachter recommends steering clear of: sex, politics and religion. And as hard as it can be, don’t gossip about co-workers. If you get stuck, “You can listen, but don’t contribute.”

Mingle. Move beyond your usual circle of co-workers and introduce yourself to people you might not run into otherwise. “It’s a great place to network with more senior people who could influence your career,” Hosking says. 

Leave the thigh-high dress and ripped jeans at home. Think business casual. If you think something’s too suggestive or casual, it probably is, Pachter says.

Look like you’re having fun, even if you’re not. Body language can reveal a lot about a person’s attitude. You might be there under duress, but you don’t need to show it. Frowning, crossing your arms or sitting at the table texting will broadcast how much fun you’re not having, Pachter says. To boost your confidence talking to higher ups, practice a few “power poses” before you go, suggests career coach Susan Joyce, in this blog post.

Don’t get plowed. If you’re not a party person, it’s easy to drink too much to make yourself feel more comfortable. Don’t.  A participant in one of the etiquette seminars Pachter teaches shared the story of a young man who got drunk at his company Christmas party, told off his boss and got fired on the spot. “The next day he couldn’t understand why his badge didn’t work,” she says. If you do over-imbibe, accept any morning-after ribbing. “It usually blows over,” Pachter says, “but if you get defensive, they’ve found your vulnerability and it’ll tend to stick around.”

Take pictures, but ask before posting anything online. Despite years of warnings about the damage people can do to themselves and their friends by posting pictures of potentially compromising situations on Facebook or elsewhere, it still happens all the time, Pachter says. Always ask.

Brief your spouse. If you’re bringing a significant other, give them the 411 in advance on co-workers you work with that they should know.

Don’t cut out early. If it’s a dinner, stay through dessert. If there’s dancing, stick around for at least one song.  “If everyone in your department is staying, you should stay awhile too,” Pachter says.