How to Navigate the Office Party

at the office holiday party this year, do share an interesting tidbit with the chief of your company. but don't celebrate with too much drinking.

sounds obvious, right?

unfortunately, workers at holiday parties can stray from the professional image they'd prefer to project, as ken pinnock, associate director of employee relations and services at the university of denver, knows all too well.

illustration by scott pollack

mr. pinnock recalls a particularly jaw-dropping incident from a party several years ago hosted by a prior employer. "one of the higher-level administrative assistants was dancing, she had had a lot of spirits, and when she was dancing she pulled up her skirt," he says.

it gets worse. "she wasn't wearing any underwear. it was just for a split second, but people saw, and she wasn't aware of how obvious it was," mr. pinnock says.

the administrative assistant ended up apologizing to witnesses, he says. but years later she's still remembered for her dance-floor antics, rather than the fine job she did supporting the office.

in some sense, work parties are a setup. that is, workers hear the word "party" and think the event is an opportunity to relax, let go, show colleagues what they're really like outside of cubicle walls. but the truth is that work parties are, in fact, work, meaning it's important to maintain professional conduct.

"the line will be blurry sometimes, but these people will still be your boss and colleagues the next day," says anna post, author and great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert emily post. "be careful about how much you drink and think about the pictures of you that could be posted on facebook."

newer employees may be particularly nervous about drinking, dress and conversation standards for parties. if so, they should just ask co-workers for some guidance. "talk to your colleagues and ask what the tone of parties typically is, if there are any topics to be careful about," mr. pinnock says. "go in with some awareness and context."

here are some other tips from experts.

avoid superficial ensure that real connections are made, meredith haberfeld, a new york-based executive and career coach, recommends focusing on one conversation at a time. people who have "their attention on the people they are speaking with, they're engaged and engaging," she says.

partygoers also should focus on people who are actually in the room with them. that means putting away the smartphone. "don't network with people who aren't there," ms. post says. "a lot of times people will text quickly while they carry on a conversation. to the people standing there with you it's as if you just put your hand in their face for a minute."

a party can be a good opportunity to meet workers in other parts of your organization. "talk to people you don't normally talk to," mr. pinnock says. "it helps to build relationships that can carry over into day-to-day activities."

when clients are present, try to talk to a few that aren't necessarily yours. "you are not trying to get business out of this person," says ms. post. "you are being a good host by making that person welcome and chatting with them."

meet the boss. make office parties work for you by connecting with a direct supervisor or someone even higher up, experts say. ask a colleague for an introduction, or approach the boss on your own.

"it's a chance to make a great impression," says charles purdy, senior editor at jobs website "you should be able to talk about what you are working on in a couple of minutes, but also have nonwork-related topics at hand."

before he attends parties, mr. purdy makes sure to check out industry and general news so that he's never without an appropriate topic. workers can also conduct some research ahead of time to find out about the boss's interests.

job search. holiday parties present good opportunities for job seekers. however, the objective isn't to hand over a résumé at a party, but to get a business card from a prospective employer or interest in a follow-up conversation.

"in a short dialogue situation like a party, you are going to get 12 seconds to interest them, or be shuffled to the side if there is no engagement," says peter crist of crist|kolder associates, a hinsdale, ill.-based search firm for top-level executives and board directors.


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