Fortune Well December 8, 2023
We’ve all been warned in some way or another about proper etiquette for the annual office holiday party. And still, there is much left to decipher on our own: How much should you drink? Do you network with execs or avoid work talk altogether? Can you—dare I suggest—not show up?
The pressure of the holiday office party is real—in part because it’s often portrayed in extremes in popular culture, as in the 2016 movie Office Christmas Party in which actor T.J. Miller’s character impresses (or terrifies) his employees with an ice luge and Santa costume.
“Holiday parties are super tricky,” Cherie Brooke Luo, a workplace culture content creator, Stanford MBA student, and former LinkedIn senior product manager, tells Fortune. “There are many cautionary tales and horror stories that I’ve heard of things going wrong at holiday parties.”
Unlike routine work-related social gatherings, holiday office parties tend to include copious amounts of alcohol while fostering more opportunities for colleagues of different levels to connect. Many of us are accustomed to Slacking our bosses, not making eye contact with them while holding spicy margaritas and wearing ugly sweaters. Whether you’re the newest team member or a long-term senior manager, you’re not alone in your trepidation.
“There’s half of the people who don’t want to go and half who look forward to it,” says Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners.
So to ease your nerves before having eggnog with the CEO, experts suggest these seven tips to master your office holiday party.
You don’t need to over-prepare for the holiday party. The point is to celebrate the season and focus less on work. However, it’s helpful to have an intention. If you’ve always wanted to get to know someone on a different team, plan to introduce yourself at the beginning of the event. In that case, “you’d be remiss to spend the entire night with your friends,” Luo says. She suggests using the 80/20 rule: Spend 20% of your time striking up conversation with someone new.
However, no need to go into full networking mode. “Once that’s over with, go in and enjoy yourself. Have a couple drinks with your friends. Go dance. Go hang out,” she says.
Kriegel says workplaces, and especially work-related socializing events, tend to appeal to the extroverted colleague. But just because you have a different disposition doesn’t mean you have to adopt a more outgoing personality to seem more engaged.
“Embrace being the person who hates the party,” she says. For many, finding one person you feel comfortable speaking with is often enough. Stick with your closest coworkers and use the time to catch up.
Some companies keep the drinks flowing during holiday parties, which can be fun but also poses a risk. After all, many holiday party horror stories were spurred by a little too much liquid confidence.
“It’s a very tricky issue because we get used to certain norms around the office. And when we go into an office party, we’re basically transitioning into social norms,” says Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information and decisions, and professor of management at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article on the school’s site. Alcohol can both disinhibit and impair our judgment, he adds. While a drink or two can facilitate participation in the festivities, too many drinks can lead to unfavorable impressions.
“There are cases where people really crossed the line—vomiting, passing out, or making unwanted advances—and they got fired for it,” says Schweitzer in the article.
While there’s no gold standard for how much to drink at holiday parties, workplace experts say to stick with what you know and to check in with your limits. Err on the side of caution and remember to drink water and pace yourself—after all, this is still a work event and your 9 a.m. all-hands is waiting for you in the morning.
Don’t be a “chaser” or “taker,” as Kriegel describes them. They use every opportunity and conversation for transactional business. Especially at a holiday party, higher-ups want to meet the genuine you, not the version who wants to review their Q4 highlights and pitch a promotion while in line to get food. “I feel interested in the people who are authentically communicating, ‘Here’s who I am. Who are you? Let’s get to know each other. How are your children?’” she says. “[You are] not using that party to nurture culture as a platform to grow your career.”
If work gatherings aren’t your jam, no worries. Give yourself a time limit, check in with yourself, and see how you’re feeling. If you got what you needed out of the party or feel overwhelmed, it’s always okay to exit, Kriegel says.
Pull out the old party trick of saying you need to use the restroom or catch a colleague before they head out and then leave the festivities.
Consider engaging with people without discussing business. “While it’s super tempting to talk about work topics, because that’s the thing that everyone has in common, try your best to talk about anything else,” Luo says.
Feeling connected to others often happens over discovering shared values and interests. It can also calm the nerves and pressure of finding something profound to discuss during a holiday party. Instead of asking about someone’s KPIs, ask them about their hobbies, whether they’ve cooked a favorite meal recently, or if they have any pets.
Usually, these types of questions are low stakes but can help foster conversations that help people get to know each other casually. “You can connect on a much more friendly and also potentially deeper level,” Luo says.
Sure, there are strategies employees can use to feel more comfortable, but it’s helpful if the company’s most senior members work to create a welcoming environment.
“Those that have the power have the privilege,” Kriegel says. “Therefore, it’s up to them to have more empathy and to be more welcoming or sensitive to whatever strange dynamics may be at play.”
Whether you leave without saying goodbye, or thrive during trivia with the sales team, you can conquer the holiday party in a way that works for you.
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