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Everything You Need to Know about Your Office Holiday Party

One sure harbinger of the holiday season is the invitation to the annual office party. No matter what the size of the organization, the holiday season seems to present the perfect opportunity to bring co-workers together for a moment of merriment. Some people look forward to the chance to mix and mingle outside the confines of business, while others would rather give up their annual bonus than spend precious personal time with the gang from work.

No matter how you feel about this yearly rite, there are certain rules you should follow concerning the office party—if you want to have an office to return to when the party’s over. When the invitation arrives for your company’s holiday happening, make sure you know the answers to these nine key questions.

1. Do I have to go?
Don't even consider NOT going unless you have a justifiable conflict. The office party is part of your job. Its purpose is to bring together co-workers and colleagues for a bit of camaraderie and some well-deserved recognition. If this is not your idea of a great time, then just consider it work. Put on your best attitude and go.

2. Do I need to know who will be there?
Yes. Find out who else has been invited. If you assume that it is just your department or your work team, you may not be prepared to interact with everyone else. Any sort of business/social event requires advance preparation. Knowing who will be there will allow you to preplan appropriate topics of conversation for each person—a critical step to a successful venture.

3. How long should I stay?
Stay long enough to speak to everyone there—assuming there is not a cast of thousands. With a large crowd, interact with as many people as possible, especially the key people, including your boss. You need to remain at the event for at least an hour or you will give the impression that your appearance was merely perfunctory.

If you are having a grand time, check your watch. Leave before the party time has elapsed. If the invitation stated from 5–7, don't stay one minute past 7 o'clock. You don't want to be thought of as part of the clean-up crew, unless that is the next job you want to have.

4. What should I wear?
Remember that this is the office party. Keep your guard up when deciding how to dress. If the event is immediately after work, your normal business attire is appropriate. If the party is later in the evening or on the weekend, your choices will vary depending on the type of event. If you aren't certain what to wear, check directly with your host or with co-workers whose taste and judgment you trust. Make sure that what you wear reflects well on you professionally. This is not the time to show up in your most revealing outfit.

5. Is my family invited?
Not unless it says so on the invitation. If the invitation reads "and family," take the kids. Otherwise leave them at home with the babysitter. Unless your spouse is mentioned or the envelope is addressed to your name "and guest," show up solo.

6. What will I talk about?
It's not what you have to say; it's about what other people have to say. The trick is allowing other people to talk. If you plan ahead and prepare some good open-ended questions, you won't have any trouble with conversations. The best conversation starter begins with "Tell me about..." You can then continue with, "That's interesting. Tell me more."

7. How much should I eat and drink?
Whether the event is a reception with light hors d'oeuvre or a full buffet, keep moderation in mind. You are not there for the food. You are there for the fellowship, so resist the urge to fill your plate to overflowing. The person who goes through the line first and takes all the food will not be remembered fondly or invited back.

Even more importantly, drink in moderation. Alcohol and business rarely mix well, so limit your consumption. View the event as an opportunity to build business relationships and to promote yourself. You will want to keep your wits about you because your after-hours conduct will have a direct bearing on your business future.

8. Should I take a gift?
Unless you are asked to bring a gift to exchange with your co-workers, the only appropriate gift is one for your host. While flowers and wine are popular items, approach both with caution. Take wine or liquor only if you are certain that your host drinks alcoholic beverages. If wine is being served with a meal, ask ahead of time what kind of wine would be appropriate. Otherwise, make it clear that you expect your host to save the wine for a later occasion.

With flowers, take cut flowers already arranged in a vase that does not have to be returned. The host should not have to scurry about to locate a vase and arrange flowers while there are guests to be entertained. Gift baskets with jams, jellies, or gourmet food items that can be stored and served later are the best choices. These need not be too elaborate.

9. Is it all right to dance on the table with a lampshade on my head?
What do you think? Obviously, such behavior is inappropriate at an office party, no matter how great a dancer you are. Enjoy yourself, but keep in mind that this event is about business. In other words, you don't want to have TOO much fun!  And keep in mind that a momentary indiscretion can be preserved forever thanks to an unsympathetic colleague's camera phone. (And it’s so easy to download a picture on to the Internet.)

Concluding Thoughts

The holiday party is not the time to let down your hair and throw caution to the wind. What you say and do on that Saturday night in December will live on for a long time in the memories of your associates. If your behavior is inappropriate, your career may be shorter than you'd like. If you conduct yourself with charm and savvy, you'll give yourself a strong boost up the ladder of success.