Surviving an Awkward Situation at the Office Holiday Party

Although enjoyable, the office holiday party can be an awkward, uncomfortable event. Not only does the function represent one of the few times when work and pleasure mix, it also can be fraught with tension if you're nervous about meeting new people or unsure of exactly how to act.

If you find yourself ill at ease, fear not. Here are some thorny situations you might encounter and tips for navigating them gracefully:

You start a conversation with your boss's husband. You've met him before on several occasions, but it quickly becomes clear that he doesn't remember you at all.

First and foremost, don't be offended. Nearly everyone has made a similar mistake in the past. Before you get too deep in conversation, reintroduce yourself and remind the person that you've met before: "I'm so sorry, I should have told you my name again. I'm Robin, and I work for your wife in the accounting department. We last saw each other at the company picnic this summer." He'll be grateful for the helping hand.

You spill your drink on yourself -- or on someone else.

If the only clothes in need of dry cleaning are your own, then laugh it off, even if you're cringing inside over the thought of a permanent stain on your favorite suit. If you avoid overreacting, you will show your co-workers that you can roll with the punches. If you spilled your drink on someone else's silk blouse, however, apologize immediately, do what you can to help her clean up, and offer to have the item cleaned or replaced. Then, make sure to follow up on your promise.

Someone at your table tries to draw you into a debate over the president's latest policy initiative.

Even if you enjoy passionate debates about politics, an office gathering is not the place to engage in your favorite pastime. Not only can the conversation get heated quickly, especially if you're speaking to someone you do not know very well, but an argument over such a sensitive subject could make the people around you uncomfortable. In this situation, avoid weighing in on the topic and try to gently steer the conversation toward a safer one: "Speaking of politicians, does anyone else watch 'The Good Wife' on television?"

You're complaining to a co-worker about a project you were recently given by your supervisor. Suddenly, you look over your shoulder and see your boss staring at you.

Unless your boss approaches you and asks about your comments directly, there's no telling if he or she heard your conversation and knows about your displeasure. Your best move is to quickly change the subject and steer clear of work-related subjects for the rest of the night. Next time, gripe in a more private place. If your manager does ask about your conversation, fess up. Also keep in mind that your supervisor may be upset, and there may be consequences as a result of your careless remarks.

You're introduced to the president of the company, and your mind goes blank.

This is your chance to make a good impression, so what you say is important. Smile, tell the executive how nice it is to meet him or her and that you are enjoying the party. The conversation does not have to be long. Chances are the president will need to move on to chat with other people fairly quickly anyway. If you were dumbstruck, and the moment has passed, develop a few quick talking points about the celebration or other innocuous topics and approach the executive again. Acknowledge that things didn't go as smoothly as you had hoped the first time around and keep things brief.

You come across a co-worker who has obviously had too much to drink and is starting to embarrass him- or herself.

Do what you can to help the person avoid doing more damage to his reputation. Get your colleague a chair and some water, find a friend who can help or even call the person a cab. Whatever you do, don't get caught up in the moment and start acting wild yourself. Also, don't gossip about the person at the office the next day. He or she will be embarrassed enough.

Sometimes, it can seem like the holiday party is less about having fun and more about avoiding potential pitfalls. But if you remember these rules, you're likely to make a strong impression with everyone you meet -- and have a good time.

Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, please visit For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at

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