As most people have figured out by now, the annual holiday party isn't an opportunity to get sloppy drunk and paw your favorite co-worker. In fact, few things can derail your career faster than acting inappropriately at such a work event.
Office parties can, however, work to your advantage and become an opportunity to advance your career. The casual atmosphere allows you to chat up the boss or break the ice with a new colleague. To optimize your time at the soiree, create specific goals to help you focus; it's not enough to vow you'll stay away from the cocktail station and appetizer trays.
"The most important thing is to remember it's still a work function – it's not just your friends gathering for a good time," says Cynthia Lett, an executive coach and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Society of Protocol and Etiquette Professionals.
There are plenty of surprising ways to make the most of your holiday party, here's how:
Be Ready for Intoxicated Partygoers
"Much has been written about not overdoing alcohol at holiday parties but you also need to be ready to respond in a professional and gracious manner to people who haven't listened to that tip," says management professor Joseph Weintraub, Director of the Babson Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
If you're stuck conversing with a coworker or manager who's had too many drinks, Weintraub recommends walking away as soon as possible before the person gets even more intoxicated. Use your smartphone as an excuse, he suggests. "In a business setting, being careful that we are not associated with people saying or doing inappropriate things is always important in managing one's career."
Speak to the Higher-Ups
It's easy to mingle with your lunch buddies or spend the night sending out tweets. Instead, get out of your comfort zone and "use the party to have the upper level executives learn who you are – to put a face to your name," says Lett.
Though it can seem intimidating, a quick chat during the holiday party can go a long way toward cementing your work relationship. Before the party starts decide which execs you're eager to chat with and anything you'd like to mention in the conversation.
"Have a hit list of the people you would like to meet, so you can measure your own performance," says Jeffrey Jones, managing director of Human Factor International, a Hong Kong-based executive and trans-cultural coaching firm.
Don't be a Downer
Whether you're bonding over some company gossip or simply airing your frustrations with your company, the holiday party is not the place to do it. "You want to appear as an upbeat, positive, can-do type of person," says Barbara Pachter, a Cherry Hill, N.J.-based business etiquette expert.
Complaining during a holiday party can feel natural. "It's easy to do since there is a lot of bad news in today's business world -- people being laid off, others having a hard time finding work -- the ones that are working are doing more with less," Pachter says.
Keep it Casual
No matter who you're speaking to, there's no need to act like you're at a business meeting. Keep the conversation casual and avoid talking shop. "The holiday party is not the place to complain about your boss, pitch your next great idea, or lobby for your next promotion," Lett says.
Instead, speak about light-hearted topics such as an upcoming vacation, wedding or holiday plans. "Basically, you need to crow a little about the good things you do that will make you memorable to the person you are talking with," Lett explains. Later in the year, the brief interaction may help break the ice.
Charm Significant Others
Your boss's significant other has more power than it may appear -- it's often the person he or she trusts most. At the party, give them special attention.
"Strike up a conversation with your colleagues' significant others," suggests career expert Heather Huhman, founder of Come Recommended, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing and public relations firm. "Making friends with these people can help influence your future career path -- both within the organization and outside of it."
While a low-cut blouse or anything too daring is inappropriate, women can experiment with color, says Lett. "If you are a woman, don't wear all black -- wear a bright color or unusual color accent so you will be easier to remember," she says. "Also, don't wear strapless dresses – when you sit down at a table, you will look naked to anyone sitting across the table from you."
Men can wear a more festive tie-shirt combination.
Prep Your Date
Even if you say all the right things when schmoozing, your date may slip up. Before the party, "let your date know who's who, what everyone will be wearing, good topics to discuss or issues to avoid completely," says Jill Bremer, an Oak Park, Ill.-based executive coach. "They will be acting as an extension of you at the event, so arm them with everything they need to be successful and make a great impression."
If it's not someone you know well, avoid bringing a date altogether.
Keep Your Right Hand Free
Especially if you work at a large firm, holiday parties mean plenty of introductions, so be prepared to shake hands, says Lyudmila Bloch, a New York-based business etiquette coach. Keeping a drink in your left hand leaves keeps you from stumbling when reaching out your right hand for an introduction. "Keep your business cards in your right pocket," Bloch adds.
Avoid holding on to anything else such as a plate, computer bag or smartphone.
Thank the Hosts
Don't treat the holiday party as a given. "Show the organizers you appreciate their efforts by thanking them before you leave," Huhman says.
"Many companies have cut back on these extravagant expenses, so if you have a company party, you should be thankful." Especially at smaller companies, a more formal way of thanking the hosts such as a handwritten note can show you're enthusiastic to be part of the firm, she says.
Follow-Up With Those You Meet
Keeping in touch after the holiday fete can go a long way in cementing new work connections. "Whenever possible, follow up with people you have met by sending them an article or information about the areas that they are interested in," Weintraub says.
Don't send a follow-up email that's too wordy and write something that doesn't require a lengthy response. Scheduling a lunch or coffee date is another option.
Write to Alina Dizik at email@example.com