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Holiday Party Etiquette: Stay on the Nice List

Holiday Party Etiquette: Stay on the Nice List
Credit: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Hosting a holiday work party is a great way to bond with your employees in a more relaxed setting while reveling in the exciting time of the year. Between the delicious food, festivities and good company, your team will have the chance to bond while enjoying some well-deserved time away from the office. But even at a work celebration, and especially if liquor is involved, things can get out of hand.

While drinks and a good time are typically part of an annual holiday gathering, remember that you're still with co-workers – and, more importantly, it's still business. A slip-up could lead to office gossip, awkward encounters or even termination.

"While the annual company holiday party should be an event for everyone to enjoy, it requires careful preparation in order to avoid a potential HR or public relations nightmare," said Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO.

To stay off the "naughty" list, follow these dos and don'ts when planning or attending your holiday celebration.

Do attend. As an employee, your most important role in the celebration is to actually show up – and on time. Sure, you might dread spending extra time with your stressful boss or nosy co-worker, but doing so will show that you value your job and the company.

Even more important, if you say you're going to attend, make sure you do – not showing up after you've RSVP'd is disrespectful to the hosts, said Michelle Roccia, executive vice president of employee engagement at WinterWyman.

Do wear something festive and tasteful. You'll still be in the presence of colleagues, higher-ups and other professionals; keep that in mind when choosing an outfit for the event.

Additionally, check with your manager if there is a specific dress code to follow, especially if the party will take place at a restaurant or venue.

"Understand what [the] dress code will be and put forth the effort required to ensure that you wear appropriate attire," said Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life (Page Street Publishing, 2017.) "You don't want to be the one who shows up in an outfit that is too casual or too formal."

Do say goodbye and thank you. Even if you plan on leaving early, have the respect to say goodbye to your team. Additionally, be sure to thank your boss and/or owner of the company for the party. Expressing gratitude is a great way to make one last positive impression, Gottsman said.

Don't talk shop. Though the party is a work event, it's a time to interact with your co-workers in a more informal way. Roccia recommends saving the discussion about the new software or your questions about a policy change for the office. This will help you bond with your colleagues on a more personal level, which will, in turn, strengthen your professional relationship as well.

Don't corner anyone. Company parties provide opportunities to meet workers across all departments. While it's wonderful to chat with people you may not know as well, try to appropriately excuse yourself from the conversation after a reasonable amount of time so they don't feel like a caged animal, Roccia said.

Don't consume too much alcohol. Drink lots of water and eat plenty of food. Give yourself a drink limit and stick with it. If you end up being overserved, call an Uber or designate a driver, Roccia said.

Do allow plus-ones. Your employees should have the choice to bring a loved one to the event. Not only will they feel more comfortable attending, but they'll also feel more inclined to introduce and speak with their colleagues.

"The holidays are such a great time to bring everyone together, so never limit the guest list to employees only," said Emily Parker Woodland, marketing programs manager and resident party planner at Lola.com. "Not only does it make for more fun in general, if you have new employees, it's nice for them to know that they will have a friendly face if they don't quite know people yet. Plus, it gives confidence to those people who might be more shy and less reluctant to join groups alone."

Do make the party voluntary. While it would be nice if everyone attends the holiday party, don't make it a requirement. Some employees may already have plans. Also, it could possibly create wage confusion and problems. "If attending a company party is mandatory, employers may be opening the business to unforeseen wage-and-hour related issues," said Starkman. 

Do make your party inclusive. Even if most of your employees celebrate Christmas, nondenominational decor, music and activities will ensure that everyone feels welcome and accepted.

"Don't focus on it being a 'Christmas party,' said Parker-Woodland. "Consider a winter party, or general holiday party, so that everyone feels included."

"Best practice is to avoid religious themes for a holiday party altogether," added Starkman. "It's all about creating an inclusive environment where every team member feels welcome and not seeming to favor one religious group over another group."

Don't host the party at your office. Get out of your typical workspace and book a location elsewhere. You can even ask your employees for options to make them feel more involved in the decision.

"Most companies miss the mark by not asking for input from staff," said Stacie Krajchir-Tom, owner of Bungalow PR. "Your staff generally knows what 'vibe' location people will be excited about or a popular hotel rooftop or spot. Usually, it's a less-expensive venue than what the boss would normally choose."

If you can't afford to host the party off-site, Krajchir-Tom recommended choosing a more social space away from desks and working areas.

Don't let drinking get out of hand. Offering alcohol is the norm for most holiday parties, so long as none of the workers are underaged. However, make sure you hire someone (or ask a friend to help out!) to serve drinks, ensuring no one is going overboard.

For the most part, adults have enough self-awareness to avoid drinking too much, but slip-ups happen. In case someone gets carried away at the bar, Starkman suggests offering free transportation to all employees. It's better to be safe than sorry, and providing a ride eliminates any chance of someone driving under the influence. 

Don't make it too late of a night. Many work holiday parties take place after-hours or even on the weekend, but Krajchir-Tom suggested hosting one during the work day.

"Not only do parents not have to hire a sitter, it feels like everyone is getting a 'day off,' the energy is up, … [and] it may also be less expensive to rent a venue during off hours," she said.

If your party runs well into the night, don't make your employees feel pressured to stay late. Workers have other obligations too, especially during the holiday season.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Business News Daily and Business.com staff writer, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. The only time Sammi doesn't play it safe is when she's writing. Reach her by email, or check out her blog at sammisays.org.