Do Not Attend Your Office Holiday Party Without Knowing These 15 Etiquette Rules

Updated 10/18/18
Janelle Marie Lloyd—Holiday party etiquette

As a kid, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the holiday season. For starters, it guaranteed a vacation, which meant the possibility of sleeping in. Then there was the prospect of presents, which strongly suggested the chance of a new toy. And finally, there were all the sweets, which definitely meant lots of dessert. However, as an adult, the holiday season can be more stressful. Aside from the gifts to buy and the decorations to hang, there are the time-off logistics to plan and the family to see.

For grown-ups, there are only a handful of things to look forward to during this period. And one of them is a holiday office party. Sure, you may spend at least 40 hours a week with these people, and bosses will be in attendance, but you can also let loose with that co-worker you send funny Slack messages to and maybe get to know that seemingly interesting employee you see in the shared kitchen. Overall, it should be a fun night—as long as you don't overstep any boundaries.

"Depending on where you are and how long you've been at the organization, take time to research, adjust, and learn about what is acceptable, expected, and comfortable for you and your colleagues," says Sharon Schweitzer, a cross-cultural coach and international etiquette expert. "If you are new, find a trusted colleague to share insight on the unwritten holiday party rules."

It's safe to say that it's not a good idea to get too wild at a holiday office party, but in case you need more insight into what that means, hold tight. We asked Schweitzer for her advice on how to behave in front of your colleagues so that you can look forward to the event—and be able to return to work without any embarrassment. These are her 15 tips. 

What are some etiquette rules to follow as a guest of an office holiday party?

Dress to impress. "The holiday party is one of your few chances to see colleagues outside of the office, so you should dress up—but do so the right way," she says. "The dress code will be printed on the invitation, but human resources can share wardrobe tips and so can a trusted colleague. The holiday event, in whatever form it takes, is an extension of the workday, so it's all business. Choose modest attire that maintains the professional reputation you've built. That gorgeous new low-cut tight dress you've been waiting to wear out to the bars stays in your closet.

Also, avoid ugly Christmas sweaters unless that's the party theme."

Curb your consumption. "Too much enthusiasm for the open bar may cost you your job," Schweitzer continues. "Having one drink is perfectly fine, but your office holiday event is the last place that you want to over-imbibe. Even if other colleagues hit the bar for seconds or thirds, refrain, and drink sparkling water instead."

Network. "This is your chance to converse with senior leaders of the organization," she notes. "If you work for a large organization and don't often see the CEO, introduce yourself, state the department you work in, and shake their hand. Keep your beverage in your left hand so your right is dry and free to shake. These interactions might open doors for future growth opportunities. Lastly, avoid gossiping or talking shop, skip controversial conversation topics, and keep the mood positive. Travel, pets, movies, and books are conversation starters."

Watch the clock. "Be sure to arrive and leave at appropriate times," Schweitzer says. "Arriving too late shows a lack of appreciation, and overstaying is not only inconsiderate to the hosts; it advertises that you have nowhere else to go. Arrive within 15 to 20 minutes of the starting time and leave 30 minutes before the ending time."

What are some things to avoid doing, no matter what?

Hanna Stefansson—Holiday party etiquette

Don't forget to RSVP. "Keep in mind that your organization planned this event to celebrate the year's accomplishments and to thank the employees," she notes. "Read that invitation carefully and RSVP within two days. Also, even if you don't wish to attend, attendance is practically mandatory—failing to go to the holiday party sends a negative message."

Don't hover at the bar. "Drinking too much alcohol is probably the most common mistake that people make during an office holiday party," she says. "If you choose to drink, do it responsibly."

Don't arrive on an empty stomach. "You were not invited because the hosts thought you were hungry," Schweitzer continues. "Be sure to keep your hands clean for meeting others, and avoid a mouthful of hors d'oeuvres."

Don't forget why you're there. "Have a goal in mind for the night—whether it's talking to a specific superior, meeting new clients, or connecting with people from different departments," she says. "And don't forget to follow through. You're not at the party to take advantage of the open bar or to graze at the buffet. This is still a professional gathering and a chance to put your best foot forward."

Don't cling to the co-workers you know. "Since you spend most of your week surrounded by the same people, holiday parties can be a professionally comfortable venue to get to know clients and other co-workers better," she notes. "Remember to warmly greet co-workers you see daily but branch out to new people. By connecting with multiple colleagues from all areas of the organization, it's possible to cultivate mentors, references, and contacts that boost your career. Take advantage of the opportunity."

Don't stay glued to your phone. "If you are glued to your phone all night, then you will miss out on key face-to-face interactions with your colleagues," she says. "Also keep in mind that social media captures everything. Be aware of this when ordering another drink and hitting the dance floor."

What else do you recommend for someone to keep in mind for holiday office parties?

Geri Hirsch—Holiday party etiquette

Eat protein before you go. "This is a must do," she says. "Eating before an office holiday party will lessen the potential effects of alcoholic drinks and help you remain more comfortable and professional. Protein snacks will help to mitigate alcohol's possibly irresponsible consequences, too."

Remain professional. "Although being comfortable at these events is key, don't allow yourself to be overly comfortable," she notes. "There is a thin line between sharing happy stories about your personal life and divulging inappropriate information. Remember your superiors may be surrounding you, and people who can promote you are paying attention."

Don't do as the boss does. "Perhaps your boss really lets loose at the holiday party," she says. "Still, this is not an opportunity for you to do the same. Whether it's fair or not, you're still climbing the ladder. Your view is not the same as the one from the top."

Be aware of your dance moves. "Some holiday parties may include dancing, some may not. If dancing is a possibility, be aware of how your grooves may be perceived by those around you," Schweitzer continues. "Letting loose may not be the best way to impress your superiors."

Never drink and drive. "No matter how much fun you do or don't have, never drink and drive," she says. "Be aware of what you are drinking and know your limits."

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