A few months into a new executive assistant role, Cheryl attended her first company office party. Once there, she drank several glasses of wine. Standing in a circle with co-workers, she regaled them with "hilarious" observations she'd made in her then-short time with the company. Then, her boss joined the circle.
"And this [guy] (note: she did not say "guy," rather used a word that one should never call their boss), he has me filling out expense reports for him to treat employees and all of their wives to dinners on the company's dime," she said.
The insinuation was that he was inappropriately spending company money to wine and dine executives and their wives. She remembers him giving her a look and walking away. It wasn't until the next day when she received a phone message from him saying that they needed to talk that she realized that her comments, which were intended to be funny, hadn't gone over as planned.
She had reason to worry. Cheryl had committed at least two common office party faux pas simultaneously — drinking too much and gossiping. She didn't lose her job, but she was mortified by the experience.
Horror stories like these might make you want to avoid company gatherings altogether, but there are benefits to attending a work party — assuming you are on your best behavior.
How Attending the Holiday Party Can Boost Your Career
You might think of most work events as optional and while this is technically true, company events, like holiday parties, can play a critical role in your career trajectory.
"People who think their job should only require an 8-hour effort are not likely to succeed, or possibly even last long, in many jobs today," says Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: Your Guide to Making and Keeping Great Connections.
Happy hours, team outings, and company holiday parties can be essential teambuilding and networking events. Common wisdom says bigger, annual events should take the highest priority for employees, but it varies from company to company.
"The default is 'yes,' you should attend the holiday party," says Jodi R.R. Smith, president and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners. Virtually everyone has something to gain from showing up to these events.
While both Smith and Wickre agree it's vital for senior leaders to show up to set examples for lower-ranking associates, anyone interested in growing with the company should make an appearance. Entry-level employees in particular should take advantage of these opportunities to strengthen their relationships with higher-ups.
However, in some instances, it's okay to skip the festivities. If making it to the party is a genuine hardship — for instance, if you won't have childcare — don't beat yourself up for not going. Or, if you suffer from social anxiety, you might consider taking a pass.
"If you're a terrible introvert and it's painful for you to walk into a room filled with a ton of people, then it's probably actually better for you not to go," says Smith. Just make sure not to give (or invent) too many details about why you're missing out, as she adds this only invites more questions or criticism.
Instead, Smith recommends you extend invitations to co-workers to chat over coffee or socialize, in a smaller group.
"Choose two or three people in the organization who you could have potentially met at the holiday party, and instead of trying to bump into them there, try to arrange to have an informational interview with them one-on-one."
How Attending the Holiday Party Can Hurt Your Career
It's important to remember that the benefits of attending company events can only be enjoyed if one behaves appropriately while there. If you attend the party and engage in inappropriate behavior, you are doing yourself — and your career — a disservice.
Here's some behavior you might want to avoid when engaging socially with co-workers.
Drinking too much
"Some people think that 'open bar' means 'all-you-can-drink,'" says Smith. Relaxation and enjoyment might be what your employer wants to promote by providing unlimited alcohol, but that doesn't mean the privilege should be abused.
For those with social anxiety, it might also be tempting to use alcohol to smooth the experience. Others just let their hair down a little too much. So, while attending events is usually a good thing, you never want to leave an office party with regrets.
"People say things they shouldn't say, they get up on the tables and dance, or they make passes at people they really shouldn't be making passes at," says Smith.
It might seem obvious, but drinking to induce a radical change in personality is unlikely to make a positive impression on anyone, especially your boss. "Your behavior is silently noted by others, whether it's exemplary or you stray from the work norm," says Wickre. Remember that this includes your supervisors.
For Cheryl, her biggest mistake wasn't simply that she over-imbibed. Gossiping can be dangerous enough in the office, but in a looser, alcohol-filled social setting, it can be even easier to say something you don't mean.
Cheryl spent the entire weekend after her company event worried she'd be let go from her job come Monday. When she was called into that meeting with her boss, she received a warning. She also learned the truth behind those seemingly excessive expense reports.
"I realized I had made assumptions about things I knew nothing about," she said. "I had seen some things at past jobs that weren't above board, so I decided without knowing all of the facts that he was abusing his power and being shady. In fact, he turned out to be one of the most kind and decent people I've worked for as an EA."
Sometimes alcohol and a relaxed environment can combine to create a different kind of bad behavior. Lauren, a former copywriter working in advertising, sees this clearly in hindsight when reminiscing about past holiday parties.
"I think I looked at those parties as an opportunity to get drunk and make out with whoever I wanted," she says. "I was young and thought everyone was cool, brilliant, accomplished, and as a result, sexy. Especially after too many glasses of crappy champagne."
In the #MeToo era, this behavior would be considered problematic for most employers. "HR should already have policies in place and, equally important, a process for safe and confidential reporting," Wickre says regarding harassment issues in the modern workplace.
While she was never disciplined for her behavior, Lauren has always wondered whether her antics might have held her back professionally.
"I do wonder sometimes whether my party behavior was the reason an office manager at one of the agencies I worked at gave me a horrible 'recommendation' for a job I really wanted. I almost didn't get the job because of it and was emotionally scarred for years."
"People you see every day in the office are not the people you should be hanging out with," says Smith. "This is your opportunity to meet other people in your organization." Simply put, you must mingle to make the most of a company event.
If you're nervous about making conversation with colleagues you don't know well or with senior leaders, do some research beforehand. For example, if the CEO is famous for donating to charities that benefit dog rescues, perhaps mention you're considering adopting a new pet and could use some pointers. Commonalities like this will help open the door to easy conversation.
Staying too long
Being the last one standing might be a badge of honor at a frat party, but not at a company event
When in doubt, Smith says that managing your arrival and departure time wisely can help ensure a more controversy-free experience.
"I'm a big proponent of going early and leaving early. Don't wait until your co-workers are getting messy," she says.
Whether or not we're always able or inclined to attend, employer-sponsored social gatherings should be taken seriously. We've got even more advice about how to mingle and moderate your behavior, how to dress appropriately, and most importantly, how to still have fun.