On the Clock

Mastering the Office Holiday Party

Nearly 80% of companies host them. Here’s our guide to turning the shindig into a potential career booster. 

The email invitation arrives: please join us for the annual company holiday party to say thanks, ring in the new year, and have some fun. Almost immediately you start to get nervous.  

You start brainstorming self-preservation strategies: avoid eye contact with that one colleague who traps you in conversations. Run to the bathroom after 30 minutes to call your friend and beg them to fake an emergency so you can go home.

The good news is you aren’t alone in this feeling: 64% of professionals don’t find company holiday parties any fun, according to a survey by consultancy Robert Half. But when you all get along just fine at the office, why do interactions with your colleagues at holiday parties have to be so awkward? 

Two-thirds of professionals said networking at holiday parties has helped them get ahead in their careers.

Well, because when people are in contexts that are outside their usual realm they act differently, says Dave Popple, president of Psynet Group. Parties are such settings—they blur the boundaries between work and social lives, making for a confusing state of whether to act like one would around friends, or to stay a bit more buttoned up. “Work requires a certain amount of discipline and impulse control,” Popple says. “The office party may be the first time people have to manage those feelings.”

Still, few would disagree work parties are a rare chance to cross-network and learn about your company; a Korn Ferry survey showed that 66% of respondents said networking at holiday parties has helped them get ahead in their career. And maybe spread some cheer

It’s easy to fall into the booze trap.

We know you already know this: limit your booze. Every holiday guide tells you this. But what you don’t realize, perhaps, is that it’s actually really hard to do.

When you mix nerves and awkwardness, and then throw people into an unusual context, alcohol does make you feel more at ease. But keep in mind there’s a time and place for you to unwind, left off steam, and go overboard—and it’s not at your corporate holiday soiree. Need proof? “Most of the executives at the party are not drinking too much,” Popple says. And more important: “They can’t unsee your behavior,” he adds.

A great way to actually succeed at this is to alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones. “Soda water with lime looks like a gin and tonic, so you’ll appear to be in full party mode,” Popple recommends.

Come armed with conversations.

There’s nothing worse than standing with someone at a party, grasping for something to say. You can alleviate many of these situations by prepping and keeping this mantra on hand: if you ask good questions, other people end up talking most of the time, which removes the pressure off you to talk and makes you come off as likeable. “The more someone tells you about who they are, the more they feel like you two are close,” Popple says.

The art to asking questions, career pros say, is to ask about topics that start off pretty typical and then get a bit more in-depth. Begin with family, travel, or hobbies. End with frustrations and obstacles at work and accomplishments or inspirations. You don’t have to worry about matching their emotion as they talk, but you do need to really listen. There’s nothing worse than being in a fake conversation. 

Skip the CEO and connect with someone who matters.

It’s easy to want to go straight for the top dog, especially if your leader often isn’t in the same room (or building, for that matter) as you. But career pros say it’s best to set your sights on people at the party who can actually help you. Reconnect with a mentor or seek out a sponsor—someone who can advocate for you and help you snag promotions—instead of just saying hello to the CEO.

And a note on your boss: instead of wanting to just kiss up (or avoid him or her altogether), view the party as an opportunity to go beyond the surface level and make a memorable impression. Ask about their life and take the time to learn about a part of them that maybe you don’t get to see in the workplace setting. 

Plan an exit strategy.

It may sound silly to prep a getaway, but it shouldn’t. When you leave, how you say goodbye and if you stick around (or be the one pushing for an after-party) are all important considerations to round out your office party experience.

Here’s the good news: any time after the party’s in full swing—and if any leaders have already made speeches—is an acceptable time to exit. And you don’t have to bother saying goodbye. Many people will be drinking, dancing, or in the middle of conversations, and it would be more disruptive than not to interrupt to announce your departure. The way you want it, ultimately, is that no one remembers your goodbye. And as for that after-party? There’s absolutely no advantage to sticking around until the bitter end. 

Not sure who to bring to your company soiree? Click here

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