Making the Most Out of Work Parties

Merrily Jackson offers tips for planning and attending job-related holiday gatherings. Photo by Corie English

“What I don’t like about office Christmas parties,” Phyllis Diller once said, “is looking for a job the next day.”

We all know the type of party she was talking about—that’s what makes the joke funny—but the drunken, debauched office party is pretty much a thing of the past. It’s obvious we’ve experienced a major cultural shift towards responsible drinking.

Like it or not, however, the holiday work party is most definitely not a thing of the past. At its best, it can be lots of fun and a great tool for team building, boosting morale, facilitating networking, recognizing great work, and strengthening all kinds of relationships, especially for employees who work mostly from home. At its worst, it can be something everyone dreads.

During my 40-plus year career, I have attended and helped plan many work-related gatherings, large and small, some terrific, some not so much. With the holiday party season upon us, I offer the following pointers for making the most out of work parties.

Don’t Just Show Up
Some people enjoy the opportunity to mix and mingle with their co-workers outside the confines of business. But there are many valuable, highly productive workers who would prefer a root canal to socializing with the gang from work. If you fall into this category, you still should probably attend the work party unless you have a justifiable conflict. Look at it as part of your job, put on your happy face and go.

This goes for everyone: do a little advance preparation. Find out who else has been invited. Is it more than just your department or work team? Knowing who will be there and having an idea what to talk about will benefit your experience tremendously.

Stay long enough to say at least a word or two to everyone there, assuming there is not a cast of thousands. With a large crowd, interact with as many people as possible, especially key people like your boss. You should remain at the event for at least an hour or you will not fool anybody into thinking your attendance is anything more than obligatory. On the other hand, don’t overstay your welcome if you’re having fun. This is not the place to party ’til the wee hours.

More About Booze
Libations still have a well-established place in off-hours work gatherings because they relax us and get the conversation flowing. Most adults are moderate drinkers. In a crowd, however, and especially if there is an open bar, there are always a few who can’t drink without getting blotto.

An employer may be liable for an intoxicated employee’s conduct if the employee leaves a company-sponsored social gathering and causes an accident. If you are hosting a large, company-sponsored function, drink tickets (two or three per person) aren’t a bad idea. Another approach is to start closing down the bar an hour or so before the party ends. It’s important to serve protein-rich foods and have plenty of nonalcoholic options. Offer to Uber home anyone who looks inebriated.

Nice Ways to Celebrate
In my corporate life, division parties usually involved a group luncheon somewhere interesting, followed by an activity, such as bowling or seeing a show together, and then the kindly offered opportunity to take the rest of the afternoon off.  At other jobs, my boss would take our team to lunch at a nice restaurant. It was hard to complain about the intrusion into my personal life.

The rarest, most gracious holiday parties I’ve attended have been hosted by a boss at his or her home. I don’t remember what was served, just that they had me over. I say this knowing not everyone is comfortable hosting a gathering at home. But I am saying it. There is nothing like home hospitality. (Email me for my favorite cocktail party recipes and not-fancy-but-filling buffet recipes. Not that you would be expected to actually cook.)

A Few Ideas for Stepping Out
If you normally hold your company party surrounded by desks, computers, and piles of work to be done, it’s tough for your staff to get into the holiday spirit. When budget and work duties allow, definitely move the party to a more festive site. If you don’t want to go the hotel or restaurant route, consider a bowling alley, art gallery, museum, country inn, ice rink, Topgolf, or other nontraditional venue. Or pile the gang onto a chartered bus, serve refreshments, and tour the Country Club Plaza and surrounding residential holiday light displays. Whatever you decide, you’re always going to get “constructive criticism” from one corner or another. Understand you’re never going to please everyone.

Dress to Impress, Baby
Keep your guard up when deciding how to dress for an office party. If the event is immediately after work, business casual attire is probably appropriate. (Would it be so wrong to bring back business attire, and the respect it conveys?)

It’s always better to overdress than underdress. You might be among the legions who work mostly from home and have seen coworkers only on a Zoom call. This is your chance to actually meet them in person. Treat it like the occasion it is.

If it is after hours, stay true to your company culture. Unless you work for a hip ad agency or media company, this is not the time to hike up your hem and drop your neckline.

If you aren’t certain what to wear, check with a coworker whose taste and judgment you trust. Make sure that what you wear reflects well on you professionally. 

Be Thankful
Don’t forget to thank the hosts of your holiday office party, as well as any of the people who worked to plan the event. No festive occasion comes off without hard work, and planning it is often a thankless job. A verbal thank you is sufficient, an email acceptable, but a handwritten note makes you stand out—and conveys a deeper level of warmth and sincerity.

Because Life Ain’t Always a Party

Most people like to help those less fortunate during the holiday season. Make it easy for employees to do so by setting up an area at your party where they can donate nonperishable food items to be donated to an area food pantry. Here are a few worthwhile possibilities:

Harvesters, the Community Food Network
3801 Topping Avenue,
Kansas City, MO, 816-929-3000

Della Lamb Food Pantry
500 Woodland Avenue,
Kansas City, MO, 816-842-8040

St. Charles Food Pantry
704 Northeast Shady Lane Drive,
Kansas City, MO 816-468-5153

Shawnee Community Services
11110 West 67th Street,
Shawnee, KS 913-268-7746

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