Published: Nov. 22, 2016

Download the Holiday Party Etiquette Career Chat presentation in PDF form.

Career Chat: Holiday Party Etiquette

You’ve got a work-related holiday party coming up. What do you need to know before you attend? We’ve developed a little primer for you on that subject so you’re prepared to be professional and handle any awkwardness with ease, from how shake hands while carrying tiny plates and cups to what to do if a colleague starts heading into #OfficeFail territory.

Invitation and Arrival

Invitations: These are extended to the people the host wants to invite, and no one else. Look for “____ and guest” or your guest’s name to see if plus-ones are allowed.

Arrivals: The earliest you should arrive is anywhere from 5-15 minutes beforehand…that is, unless you’d like to help set up. Don’t show up empty-handed unless instructed to; plan to bring a dessert, wine, etc.

Staying Present and Professional

Cellphones: Keep yours stowed. Enjoy the people around you and be in the moment. If you feel you need to respond to every incoming message, you’ll lose more in the eyes of the person who’s in front of you than you’ll gain from the unseen recipients of your phone efficiency.

Free hand: Always keep your right hand free; carry plates or cups in your left hand and park your other items.

Alcohol: Limit alcohol consumption, even if it’s from an open bar. Ways to limit yourself include:

  • Imposing a personal cutoff amount
  • Alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Ordering a drink you don’t care for so you’ll nurse it instead of drinking it quickly

Making and Exiting Conversations

  • Don’t gossip or talk about work.
  • Mingle; don’t talk only with people you work with regularly.
    • Easy way to meet people: In a food/beverage line, talk to people in front of and behind you
  • Talk to the “Big Cheese.”
    • Thank him/her (only 1 in 40 people do this)
    • If asked about your position at work, don’t just list your location — discuss a responsibility or two and tell him/her something you love about your job
    • Keep the exchange to 2-3 minutes and talk about more than food
  • To exit a conversation, say something similar to this:

“I’m going to go for another drink/to the buffet…I’m sure you have other people to talk to, and I promised myself I’d circulate.”

Leaving the Party

There’s really nothing to be gained by staying until you’re one of the last, so don’t feel obligated to stay too long. On the flip side, don’t be the first to leave if you can help it. If you must be first to leave, have a good reason as to why. Don’t forget to politely say your goodbyes to your colleagues, especially the host.

Handling an ‘Oops’ Moment

Running late to the party? Break or spill something while there? Friend has had a bit too much and is starting to head into #OfficeFail territory? Don’t panic. Here are some ways to save yourself:

  • Running late: Call a friend or co-worker to let them know and ask them to inform the host as well. You could also call or text the host, but don’t expect a reply, as they’re probably busy getting the party ready. Also, apologize once you get there and offer a brief reason, if possible and appropriate.
  • Spill/Break: Notify the host of your “oops” and offer to clean up the mess. If your host insists on cleaning it instead, allow; there may be a specific cleaning treatment needed, and you don’t want to do any more harm. If you break something, privately apologize to the host(s) and let them know you intend to pay for the damage. If they won’t accept, and depending on how big of an oops it is, you might consider an alternate offering (e.g., a gift card, homemade cookies) along with a handwritten note to indicate your regret.
  • #OfficeFail Friend: Try to pull your friend aside and suggest he or she lay off the drinks/excessive talking/etc. If possible, try to save your friend while remaining at the party, but if the friend is too far gone, you may want to suggest (or insist) that the person leave. Remember to ensure your friend’s safety by not letting him or her drive while under the influence of alcohol.

Other Networking Resources

Consult other areas of our website and/or Career Guide for more on making connections.