21st Century Office Party Planning & Etiquette

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Love it or dread it, the office holiday party is an enduring tradition. These events bring together all kinds of people under circumstances where the boundaries of work and private lives might blur. If you’ve been in your workplace for a few years, you probably have a story to share—ranging from the awkward conversation with your boss’s better half, to memorable karaoke misfires, and even regrettable drunken behavior, which anyone from interns to C-suite execs can exercise. Here’s our 21st-century guide to successfully planning and attending yours.

For Party Planners: Lose the Booze?
Given all that we’ve learned in recent years about the incidence of workplace sexual harassment, it’s no surprise that more companies are rethinking the inclusion of alcohol at office events. While alcohol may not be the direct cause of office harassment, it dampens inhibitions and affects judgement. A circumstance where coworkers are drinking—and may be drinking to excess—can raise the likelihood of harassment, especially if companies and their employees aren’t mindful of the risks.

More companies are choosing to change the drink menu. In December 2017, the Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas issued the results of their annual survey about U.S. firms’ holiday party plans, which revealed that less than 50 percent of them planned to serve alcohol.

If you’re on the planning side of things, and you’ll be serving alcohol at your office party, consider using drink tickets and limiting guests to two drinks. Be sure to provide ample food, so folks aren’t drinking on empty stomachs. And make sure everyone has safe transportation home. (We have more tips for party planners in “How to throw your company’s annual shindig without losing your mind” and “How to plan a winning office party.”)

Passing on the alcohol doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun party. Every workplace is different, and there are plenty of ways to make the gathering enjoyable: Renting food trucks, including games and competitions, and featuring creative “mocktails,” to name a few examples.

For Party Goers: Office Party Etiquette
Regardless of where you stand on the organizational chart—or whether or not you imbibe —knowing how to handle yourself at an office party is important for many reasons, including letting your employer know you appreciate their effort. With the right approach, you can absolutely enjoy your office party and avoid some common pitfalls.

1. Show up. Don’t skip out on the party, unless you have an actual conflict. According to a 2017 survey by staffing company Randstad US, 90 percent of employees say they would prefer to get a bonus or extra vacation days than have their employer spend the money on a holiday party. While these festivities may not be your idea of fun, companies invest time and resources in these events in the hopes of showing staff a good time—so acknowledge this by making a friendly appearance at the very least. Even if you and your coworkers aren’t close friends, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

2. Screen your plus-one. Don’t bring a guest you can’t count on to behave. This is not the time to introduce your brand-new boo or the person you just picked up on OKCupid. You should feel confident that any guest you bring will be able to hold their own in conversation and reflect well on you if they end up in the buffet line behind your boss. And remember, you don’t need to feel obligated to bring someone.

3. Moderation. Don’t overindulge when it comes to alcohol, play it safe—and know yourself. Even a modest amount of alcohol leaves some people less inhibited than they would want to be around their coworkers. Regardless of how “relaxed” your corporate culture is, or whether the event takes place offsite in a bar or some other setting, any work-related event is a professional gathering, and you should treat it as such.

4. Dress appropriately. Festive and fun outfits are good, but depending on your office culture, keep in mind that a night out with coworkers is probably different than a night on the town with your clubbing squad.

5. Be positive and friendly. A holiday party is not the place to gossip or complain about work. Avoid the tendency to stay huddled with your usual group and make an effort to connect with colleagues with whom you don’t normally get to interact. Ask about their interests outside of work, their family, or hometown. Even if you’re not a “party games” person, take part in at least one organized activity—you may surprise yourself and have fun outside of your comfort zone.

6. Know when it’s time to call it a night. Enjoy a festive beverage or two, if that’s your preference, but stop once you feel a buzz coming on and take a taxi, ride share, or public transit home.

Have fun! Before going, think about what you’re grateful for or happy about in your job, and take the opportunity to share that. Remember to thank your hosts at some point during the event, whether it’s the HR team, your boss, and/or the company CEO. Make the most of the festivities by being gracious, respectful, and engaging with your coworkers. Cheers!

Elisabeth Flynn is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years working in the nonprofit/social innovation sector, including stints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ-focused health and wellness provider.

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