Picture it: The posh ballroom of the four-diamond Omni hotel in Uptown Charlotte. Soft lighting, crystal chandeliers, and the red, jiggling buttocks of a Fortune 500 executive screwing his wife behind a pair of floor-to-ceiling drapes. It happened to a firm so big, legal won’t allow me to print the name, but incidents like this go on at companies of every size during the holiday season. Never fear: At this most wonderful time of the year, CL polls the experts for advice on how to work these parties like a pro: how to dress, act and even do damage control if, like the aforementioned big wig, you’re caught ass-out.
A 2010 study by human resource firm Adecco shows that 40 percent of us have seen or suffered a major indiscretion at a work-sponsored holiday event. Nearly a quarter of us admit to drinking too much, and 14 percent of us have behaved so badly, we lost our jobs.
For better or worse, office holiday parties are the pinnacle of the professional year. They’re the equivalent of Roman gladiator games, when the gods of industry cast lowly interns and corner office VPs in the pit together, add alcohol and stir. There may be dance battles or epic karaoke. Who comes out on top is anyone’s guess, but a pinch of common sense can go a long way in preserving a reputation.
Winnye Wilks, a regional human resources director, has worked for big-name book sellers and casinos, and in her 25-year career has seen just about everything. She starts with a disclaimer. “My thoughts are not the policy of my company, but my opinion given years of professional experience,” Wilks stresses. But once that’s out of the way, she shares a battery of opinions.
It starts with whether or not to go. Even if you work with a bunch of Huns, that answer is always yes. Eat first so you’re not distracted from the task at hand by canapes — this isn’t really a social occasion, but a chance to run game on your company for a raise, promotion, or at least a better deck chair on the Titanic.
Show up on time, rocking a smile and a new outfit. That outfit, by the way, should be a stepped-up version of your work wear. A heel if you normally wear flats, slacks if you live in khakis, a richly hued counterpoint to your daily cotton shirt. If you’re feeling sexy, pull up a clip of the hospital scene in Million Dollar Baby. Tonight is not the night.
Make the rounds and speak to everybody, but avoid the Friend Zone, where you stand in a corner with your cubicle BFF and rag on everyone else the whole time. Instead, make the rounds. The website The Politics of Everything suggests spending 8-10 minutes with everyone you already know, and introduce yourself to the people you don’t — especially your bosses and managers in other departments. And what should these conversations entail? Well, here’s what they shouldn’t: trash talk about the company, dirt on co-workers, or the Big Project. Have a story or a joke up your sleeve for when conversation gets sluggish, but don’t try too hard, either. It’s OK to let your guard down, but it’s not the night to become BFFs with your subordinates or your boss.
So you’ve made small talk, met some new people and have some interesting fodder for stay-in-touch emails. Kudos if you nursed only one or two drinks through the gauntlet! And now the music is a-calling. Go ahead and two-step if you’re under three drinks. More than that and you’ll be tempted to dance like nobody is watching (and they are). If you don’t want to be a Vine punchline the next day, stay in your lane and drink a little water.
Speaking of water, stay hydrated and sober by alternating glasses between drinks. The more you imbibe, the more it feels like a party, but this is a work event. You wouldn’t come to work drunk if you knew the CEO and executive team would be present —let’s go on a limb and say you wouldn’t do it any other time, either — and this is same thing. Besides, a University of Birmingham study found that drinking at the office and other places not traditionally associated with alcohol makes us significantly less able to control our behavior.
Inebriation is the office party kiss of death. Alicia King, a senior human resources manager for Bi-Lo out of Jacksonville, Florida, recalls an incident at a former company’s function. When they rented out a restaurant for the holiday party, “someone got wasted,” King wrote via email. “They asked everyone to be seated so we could begin dinner, and the guy went to put his red wine on the table. Missed the table, and the wine went all over the lap of one of the executives, who was livid. He wasn't terminated for his behavior, but a couple of months later, he left the company for an opportunity elsewhere.”
King says she typically leaves holiday parties before the heavy drinking starts, because she doesn't want to see colleagues in a different light. In fact, that’s a good strategy; oftentimes it’s best to leave on a high note while the party is still swinging. Otherwise, you run the chance of playing a part in another holiday party faux pas: the romantic play.
“When I worked in the casino business, because those types of companies have a lot of employee functions and parties with opportunities to drink, people often tried to develop inappropriate relationships at parties,” Wilks says.
And it’s not only the single and ready to mingle crowd. According to a survey from Ashley Madison (the “dating” site for married people who want to cheat), 72.2 percent of women and 59.8 percent of men who cheated on their spouses with a co-worker say it started at the office holiday party.
“They bring relationships back into workplace, and I’ve never seen that turn out well for employees,” Wilks warns. There can be serious consequences, depending on the company’s ethics and fraternization policies, and oftentimes seniority in the ranks is no protection. A sexual harassment lawsuit, for instance, can cast the company in as bad a light as the offender, so corporations are very sensitive to the perception around their handling of such cases.
“I always caution companies to be consistent in how they deal with that behavior,” Wilks says. “Not handling those situations consistently is a company’s biggest fail. The tenure of the person doesn’t matter, it’s the outcome of their actions.”
Either way, everyone still has to face themselves and their co-workers in the harsh light of the next day. It may not be the end of the world if you got into your cups at the annual holiday bash, but in order to salvage some reputation you may have to fall on your sword. This is not the time for email, where tones can be misinterpreted. You also don’t want to supply evidence to be used against you later. The wiser move is to suck it up, put your big girl panties on and do it face-to-face.
“I’d advise the person to be forthright about their actions and don’t wait for your supervisor to come to you. Tell them something happened that wasn’t in my normal character, but this is not who I am,” Wilks says.