How To Avoid Being "That Guy" At The Office Party And Still Let Your Holiday Spirit Shine

Tips on making sure the season of festivities doesn't turn into a monthlong exercise of sticking your foot in your mouth or issuing email apologies—plus a few suggestions on gift-giving and fashion to help you outshine Larry in accounting.

Even if your CEO prefers to call himself "chief ninja" (hello, Seth Priebastch) and staff are routinely encouraged to relax and be creative (and forgo the suits and ties) there’s a certain amount of business etiquette that’s required in the workplace.

Unfortunately, during the holiday season, a time to be festive and full of good cheer can often be fraught with faux pas. A packed calendar of parties, some with freely poured libations, can unwittingly cue a conversational blunder with a coworker, while sitting back quietly because you’re unsure of what to say and how to act could stifle opportunities to network or land a new client. Not to mention the loss of productivity from too much indulgence. A recent survey from indicates that 64 percent of Americans have called in sick or know someone who has missed a day of work due to a hangover after attending a holiday party.

Myron Radio, president of the R-Group, a leadership consultancy, says the first thing to remember when navigating all the end-of-year expectations is something he heard from a senior executive. "When you arrive at work and step off the elevator, you step directly onto a stage."  

With that in mind, Fast Company polled the experts to tackle a host of sticky situations. Here are their tips for making the holidays work to your advantage.

Diversity Dos and Don’ts
95 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas, according to a Gallup poll, but only a little more than half do so for religious reasons. That said, Myron Radio notes that people of all religions seem to have special holidays during the winter season and should be acknowledged. From Ashura (Islamic) and Bodhi Day to Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and the Solstice, he says you can’t go wrong by using generic phrases such as "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." However, if you know a specific holiday that someone celebrates, then it is perfectly acceptable to wish them that when communicating with them one-on-one, Radio adds.

Hot-Button Holiday Greetings
Speaking of sending good wishes, Erin Newkirk, founder of Red Stamp, says, "Sending warm holiday greetings to your boss/colleagues/customers is not only acceptable, it's wonderful when done right."

Newkirk believes it’s important to make it personal. "No one feels special when they open up the form card that's a preprinted greeting with Xeroxed signatures of the entire company roster," she says, or receiving one that’s a photo of you, your company, or "your adorable kids they’ve never laid eyes on."

Instead, she recommends selecting cards that are philanthropic or artistic, relevant to their industry or interests. Always avoid politics, religion, or social issues. "Humor is tricky, so it’s usually best checked at the front door."

Inside, greet the recipient by name, and include a short greeting wishing happiness and prosperity throughout the season and into the coming year. "If you shared a favorable, work-appropriate moment with your boss/coworker/customer, include a clever photo or memento," she adds. Then hand-sign the card.

Gift-Giving Gaffes
Rewarding your direct reports or the entire staff is a matter of preference, according to etiquette guru Emily Post. She recommends giving across the board so no one feels left out and suggests gift certificates, tickets to the theater or a sporting event, books, CDs, and food items.

Roberta Chinsky Matuson, author of Suddenly in Charge, says skip the package and give the gift of time. "Next time you want to thank an employee for a job well done. Walk up to their desk on a Friday at noon and tell them to take the afternoon off. Accept no excuses. Tell them you are giving them a paid afternoon off as a thank you for being such a valuable member of your team. Don’t be surprised if they show up early on Monday morning feeling rested and ready to plow through their day," she writes.

Gifting the boss, on the other hand, could be perceived as sucking up. Radio suggests doing what feels right to you. "If you've known your boss for quite a while, and if you have a personal relationship with him or her, a small gift to show your appreciation for them is perfectly acceptable," he says. This should be offered privately, not publicly.

If you’re new, a gift to them could be misconstrued or make them feel obligated to reciprocate, he says. To avoid any awkwardness, give the gift discreetly and add a personal note that says something like: "Just a small gesture of my appreciation for your help in transitioning into our company."

Charitable Donation Dynamite
‘Tis the season for charitable giving. Even if your company doesn’t have a policy or set of organizations they’d like you to contribute to, you may find yourself faced with eager coworkers independently collecting for a food bank or selling cookie dough for their kids’ school fundraiser.

"If you are the kind of person that genuinely like to help people in need, then by all means contribute," advises Radio. "However, if you are reluctant to commit yourself for fear that the requests might multiply, it might be good to say, ‘I do contribute to worthwhile causes like yours already. If I can help you in any other way, please let me know.’"

Avoid A Fashion Faux Pas
Christene Barberich, editor-in-chief of online fashion magazine and e-commerce site Refinery29, says there’s no reason you need to look like a fashion fiasco during any office festivities if you follow some simple guidelines.

If the culture is casual in a small business or creative agency, Barberich urges female staff to "have fun with your holiday party look, and try out a trend that you've been on the fence about, like metallic makeup, a bold-colored dress, or a shimmery jumpsuit," she says.

For more buttoned-up companies, Barberich cautions, "This is not your moment to show up at work in a little lacy thing, announcing to the world that you'll party well into the wee hours." She suggests a work-appropriate dress under a statement jacket that you can take off later. "I'm also a big fan of the tailored tuxedo suit, which can be incredibly flattering and glamorous on most women."

Keeping the hem length in check, Barberich says, the place women can safely take a risk is with their shoes. "Add a great pair of boots or a higher-than-average heel—that way, you feel festive and empowered."

For guys toiling at a startup, a lax dress code can mean falling into a rut of jeans and hoodies. Barberich says, "The holiday party is the perfect chance to shake up your sartorial slump and up the ante. We recommend mixing some raw denim with a slim-fit tuxedo jacket paired with a seasonal plaid, even play around with a contrasting patterned tie." She encourages guys to add some color, whether it's in the form of bright cords, quirky socks, or a cheeky sweater. 

In the corporate world, Barberich says that annual office get-together is the time to have your very own James Bond/Daniel Craig moment. She says invest in a tailored suit with slightly skinnier lapels. "If you're feeling even more GQ, velvet is the way to go. Think: a rich cranberry blazer, a black tie, or even a smoking slipper. Just make sure you look more like Her Majesty's spy than Austin Powers."

Don’t Forget to Say Thanks
"If someone took the time to send you a physical gift, send them a physical note," says Newkirk. You can send an email or e-card if you got a digital gift. Don’t delay, she says, "No one expects a novel so you can keep it brief," and adds, "Pictures of you enjoying your gift with a pithy headline or phrase is fabulous, too."'

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[Party Image: Dasha Petrenko via Shutterstock]

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1 Comments

  • Spark Hire

    Great post! The holidays can be merry and bright, but they also come with their own set of office etiquette challenges. You don’t want to be the one person at the party hanging from the rafters, or so embarrassed on Monday that you immediately start polishing up your video resume because you can’t look your boss in the eye. As you mentioned, it’s important to be careful when it comes to consuming alcohol, keep your dress professional, and always send a thank you note when you receive a gift.