My current workplace does not have holiday parties outside of the office. We mainly stick to pot-luck lunches or small, dessert based parties. This is fine with me as I’m not the type to socialize on that level with my co-workers (I’m not really sure what that says about me but ) and I like pot-lucks and dessert. It also means that I will not commit some of the deadly sins of office parties. I did that once and I vowed never to do it again.
In 2002, I was about 6 months into my second full-time job post grad school. In my first job, our boss took us out to lunch in Philly, said some nice words and that was that. This job, however, was a bit different. Even though I was working for a Catholic agency, the director (a former nun) opted to have our Christmas party in a bar/restaurant. With an open bar. For about 20 twenty-somethings. That is a toxic combination for a Saturday night, never mind for an office holiday party.
Needless to say, I drank more than my fair share of beer. So much, in fact, that I only remember 3 or 4 distinct moments from that party. One of those moments was refusing a gift of a very snazzy umbrella with our agency logo on it. Now, that might not seem so bad but the fact that it was offered to me by the director makes the refusal pretty unacceptable. And rude. And unprofessional. And it definitely made an unfavorable impression on the director.
That party was a pretty significant learning experience for me. It made me realize that just because there’s alcohol at an office party doesn’t mean that I have to drink it and, if I am going to drink, I need to do so in moderation. Here are some other lessons that I learned:

  • Your conduct at office parties can affect your career. Like it or not, even though you’re at a party outside of the office, your supervisors are still judging your behavior. They’re looking to see how you conduct yourself among your co-workers and administration when you’re in a more relaxed environment. They take notes about your behavior and even if they don’t reprimand you for poor behavior, it certainly can affect whether or not you are considered for promotions, raises, and more high profile projects.
  • Your conduct at office parties can affect your relationships.  If you’re anything like me, you don’t take the opportunity to get to know your co-workers and/or supervisors on any sort of personal level. I do this because we don’t want to cross any boundaries or offend anyone. By only talking about work, I’ve been perceived as too serious and impersonal. However, during parties, I’ve been able to open up a bit and connect on a personal level. Having this kind of relationship can help with projects and getting things done. Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, that relationship can also backfire and get you into some serious trouble.
  •  Your conduct at office parties can affect your reputation. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the sitcom episodes where someone gets too drunk at an office party and hooks up with someone completely inappropriate (in the above story, I did not do this. I promise. That is one mistake I did not make). That person then becomes permanently branded with the reputation as the office tramp, subject to behind the back ridicule and gossip. While we may thing that the higher-ups don’t hear about this, they do. And so do our co-workers, even if they weren’t at the party.

Now that the holiday season is in full swing, there are plenty of office parties. While these can be a time to connect and have fun with your co-workers, it’s also a time to improve your career and reputation. Or destroy it.  It’s your choice.