IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lampshade alert: Surviving the company party

Your Career:  The holiday party has long been a tense event for many employees faced with a host of soirée questions: How to act? What to wear? How friendly to be?
"I love you man!" (or woman) might not be the best expression to bust out at the office bash.
"I love you man!" (or woman) might not be the best expression to bust out at the office bash.David Ellis / Getty Images

Over the years, John Levisay has worked for some of the biggest corporate names, including eBay and General Electric, and he’s attended some of the biggest holiday parties.

Levisay has seen coworkers drink too much, dance too much, and other “ill-conceived behavior” that often came back to hurt employees careers and even get some fired. But he’s always followed one simple work-party rule: Enjoy yourself but stay professional.

“A mentor told me very early on that party or no party, you are an executive and still technically ‘at work,’” says Levisay, who recently launched an online education company called Sympoz. The company’s first holiday party will be a subdued potluck dinner because he always found big bashes to be stressful experiences.

The holiday party has long been a tense event for many employees faced with a host of soirée questions: How to act? What to wear? How friendly to be?

Worker concerns have only gotten more intense during tough economic times, say workplace experts, because no one wants to do anything to jeopardize their jobs and some workers aren’t in a partying mood after seeing coworkers laid off, or their paychecks and benefits shrink.

And more companies are planning on serving alcohol this year than in the past, creating more of an opportunity for an employee to overindulge and do something stupid.

All these factors contribute to worker holiday-fete ambivalence this season, and many would rather skip the festivities.

Nearly 95 percent of workers would rather get a bonus than have a holiday party; and 29 percent said it was “inappropriate” for their managers to host one in this tough economy, according to a poll by staffing firm Randstad.

“Once a popular tradition, the office holiday party doesn’t have the same appeal for workers today given recent layoffs and budget cuts,” said Eileen Habelow, Randstad’s senior vice president for organizational development. 

But bypassing your company bash is not a smart career move, especially in a tough labor market. “That just sends the wrong message,” says Dale Winston, CEO of recruiting firm Amrop Battalia Winston. “If your company is opting to have a party, show up and if you’re not happy suck it up.” Just be on your best behavior, she added.

While fewer businesses are planning holiday parties this year — about 79 percent, down from 81 percent last year — more of those holding parties will serve alcohol this year, nearly 80 percent, up from 73 percent a year ago, according to an annual survey by Amrop Battalia Winston. And about 11 percent will be hosting more lavish shindigs, the poll found.

If you’re company is planning a party and you’re worried about what to do, here are some don’ts to keep in mind in order to make your attendance career-enhancing, not career-killing.

Don’t drink too much
Getting drunk at a holiday party is the quickest way to tarnish your reputation at work, according to workplace experts but people still do it.

A poll by Adecco, a staffing company, found that 20 percent of people surveyed had too much to drink at a work holiday party and 14 percent say they know someone who was fired for their behavior at a holiday party. And another study done by Harris Interactive for Caron Treatment Centers, a nonprofit provider of alcohol and drug treatment, found-one third of respondents thought it was appropriate for employees to drink three drinks or more at a company bash.

The question is how much is too much? “Company holiday parties are best navigated with abstinence,” suggests Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed therapist for Caron.

He pointed to research the Centers have done showing “people tend to behave badly at holiday parties when they drink alcohol, (with instances of) inappropriate flirting with colleagues or saying something to your boss you later regret.”

“In this hypercompetitive environment,” he added, “corporations are hypersensitive to lapses in judgments and sloppy behavior among its employees. Holiday parties are no exception.”

If you’re one of those people that can stop after one drink, you'll probably be fine. But, he stressed, “if you can't live without alcohol for a few hours at a company event or feel like you need the booze to relax — that could indicate you have a problem with alcohol. Don't bring that problem into a corporate environment.”

He offered some tips for resisting the cocktails:

  • Before you attend make a clear time and when you’ll be departing the party and stick to it.
  • Keep your hands full. Sparkling water with lime is the perfect corporate holiday party drink.
  • Make a pact with a trusted colleague that the two of you will abstain from drinking alcohol this year.
  • Challenge yourself to meet and spend at least five minutes with 10 colleagues who you don't know well.

Don’t overdress
“Know that photos will be taken at your party and live on forever,” warns fashion expert Teri Sutherland, general manager of outlet center Woodburn Company Stores in Oregon.

Sutherland recalled a manager she had worked with in the past that was typically “mouse-ish and unrefined in her career wear” but decided to make a splash at the company party.

She wore a snakeskin micro-mini outfit with a plunging sequined halter-top and 4” heels with fishnet stockings.

Unfortunately, Sutherland added, the manager “was never able to recuperate the level of respect that perished within seconds of making that fateful party entrance.”

Don't get personal
Even though you may be pining for someone in your workplace, don’t use the holiday party as the occasion to make your move.

Greg Rasin, an employment attorney for law firm Proskauer, had a situation with an employee in a managerial position, who had a few too many drinks, made comments about a rank and file employee’s body and her looks, and “sort of grabbed her.”

The manager was asked to leave the party and when he got back to work the next day an investigation was launched into his behavior, Rasin recalled. “The employee was terminated for his conduct."

Don't bring a date gone wild
Often times, the ruckus at company parties is caused by the guest of an employee, according to employment lawyers who have litigated post-party sexual harassment claims.

The problems sometimes stem from a guest not understanding the culture at a company. So it’s a good idea to have a chat with your date on what’s acceptable behavior.

"But that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to bring a guest, especially a significant other," advises Charles Purdy, Monster+HotJobs’ senior editor and the author of the book “Urban Etiquette.” “It allows your colleagues get to see another side of your life,” he says.

Don’t bitch about work
There’s nothing like a more casual setting to get people feeling comfortable to talk about what’s on their minds. But even though work tends to consume every waking hour of our lives today, Purdy believes talking shop is a holiday party no-no.

“Don't burden a coworker with your problems,” he advises. “Leave the office at the office.”

And try to have some fun. That’s what parties are all about after all, especially during tough times.

“You ought to be able and sit down and enjoy each other’s company and say, ‘we’ve made it through this together,’” says Tillman Coffey, an employment attorney with law firm Fisher & Phillips.

Save the real fun for the parties with your friends and family.