People@Work: Enjoy the holiday office party without injuring your career

With Thanksgiving behind us, the December holidays have become the focus of many people's attention. In the workplace, this is often the month for company-sponsored office parties, a way for bosses to say thanks for a job well-done and to inspire team loyalty among co-workers.

Of course, the recession's hangover likely means fewer such get-togethers than in years past -- and some organizations, such as Goldman Sachs Group (GS) have put the kibosh on office holiday parties altogether, even at employees' homes. But if you're fortunate enough to work for a company that's still planning a bash, now would be a good time to revisit some rules about merrymaking with co-workers.

Let's start at the beginning -- with the invitation. These days, such correspondence often arrives via email. And while an emailed invititaion may seem much less formal than a paper one, the same rules still apply. That means replying regardless of whether you plan on attending or not, and not waiting until the last minute to do so, says workplace-etiquette expert and author Andrea Kay.

"It's really appropriate to reply within days of receiving an invitation," she says.

Dress is important, too. If the invitation doesn't stipulate a particular style, play it safe and plan on wearing something conservative. "Low-cut clothing is becoming more common," Kay says. "Just because it's a holiday event, you don't want to be wearing things that would be inappropriate."

Fodder for Instant E-Gossip

Once at the party, keep in mind it's a professional setting, even if the mood appears looser than at the office. If alcohol is served, don't drink so much that you might say something you'll regret, Kay says. "You're still with people that you may work for or with, and what you say and how you say it will be noticed."

Further, the increasing popularity of social media nearly guarantees that news of any faux pas will spread instantly. You can be sure someone will be stealing off to a corner to text or tweet about any blunder, sending it right then and there because they can. There's no reason to wait for the next business day to gossip about it.

"For the same reasons your mouth or a memo got you in trouble before, tweets can get you in trouble today," Kay says.

But fear of making a fool of yourself shouldn't prevent you from attending the holiday bash. Kay says it's still a chance to do something that you may not get to do much: talk with people (in person, rather than via email or phone), and to conduct the important business of building relationships and making face-to-face connections.

"It's an opportunity," she says, "Why wouldn't you?"

More Tips from the Etiquette Experts

If you're thinking about attending your work-sponsored holiday party, here are a few quick tips to keep in mind, according to career-development site Quintessential Careers:

  • Do remember that although office parties are intended as social events to reward employees and raise morale, they remain strictly business events. Do act as though your behavior is being observed every minute (because it probably is).
  • Don't pass up the invitation to an office party; not attending could hurt your reputation. And when you attend, do spend at least 30 minutes at the party for appearances. But don't overstay your welcome by partying until the wee hours.
  • Do conduct yourself professionally at all times. Don't use the office party as an excuse to blow off steam. It's still a company function, so proper etiquette and decorum matter.
  • Don't bring the party lampshade, gag gifts for the boss or any other crazy stuff you might do at a personal holiday party.
  • Do enjoy yourself at the party. Employers spend the big bucks to reward their employees, so be sure to enjoy the only holiday gift your company may be giving.
Looking for more tips on holiday party dos or don'ts? Quintessential Careers offers a number of resources for getting through a holiday party as well as workplace gift-giving at its website.
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