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Eat, Drink and be Wary:

The New Rules for Corporate Holiday Parties

Colleagues wearing Santa hats enjoying a holiday party with confetti and gifts

My, how the times have changed. It wasn't a decade ago that businesses sought to outdo each other's holiday parties. Companies vied for the coolest locale, hottest caterer and of course, spirits—so much so that the true spirit of the season was totally overshadowed by the production.

Ever since the New York Times and the New Yorker published articles chronicling allegations of sexual assault and harassment against producer Harvey Weinstein and seemingly every media star or mogul you have ever heard of with more women coming forward each day, corporate America is taking notice.

Challenger, Grey & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm, conducted a holiday party survey of 150 human resource representatives, titled, "Is the 'Weinstein effect' causing companies to curtail celebrations?" The firm reported that about 10 percent of employers will not hold a holiday party this year, after having held them in the past. Less than half of employers (47.8 percent) will provide alcohol at their holiday parties this year, down from 62 percent in 2016. "Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur," said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

A Company Party has the Word "Company" in it

I suspect that during my 40-year career I have attended more than 500 holiday and office parties. Most of them, even back in the day, were attended by well-behaved executives but there were always a few situations where you just shook your head and wondered "what were they thinking?"

  • Not grokking the purpose of the party. Many people go to a holiday business party (theirs or a business client's or partner's) with the wrong mindset. They assume it is a party—which it is in a sense. But more importantly, it is work that takes place under different conditions from the normal work day but with many of the same people. There are people at the party who establish your salary, if you are ready for the promotion or if they want to do business with you. Because you are not in the office it can be tempting to be overly casual or to say things that you would not otherwise say in the office.
  • Hors d'oeuvres do not mean dinner. Some people at business gatherings make a bee line for the serving table and pile a plate so high with food that I worry the plate will crack from the weight. They are eating so much you cannot even distract them with a "happy holidays."
  • Talking to only those with whom you work. If you are hosting a party for clients or potential clients, avoid the temptation to just talk with your work colleagues. Remember many of the people attending may not know many people. You are a host, even if you don't know many of the attendees.
  • Arriving too early or leaving too late. There is nothing worse than guests who show up to a party 15 minutes before the event begins. Well, there is something worse. The guests who are having such a good time that they are stay long after the party has ended.
  • Drinking too much. Getting sloshed at a business event is one of the worst ideas ever but it happens at every holiday business party. And the next day you can hear the whispers "did you see Evelyn struggle to find her way out of the house?" "Boy, Bob sure was not feeling any pain last night." Do you want to be the person everyone talks about the next day? Will that engender respect or help your career? Enough said.

Advice from a Pro

Cindy Clifford, President of The Clifford Group and one of the nation's leading PR gurus, has planned literally thousands of corporate events. She offers the following advice:

  • Dress up but not so much that you stand out. Consider the occasion. The attire for a business open house may not be the same as a cocktail party.
  • Arrive about 15 minutes after the starting time of the party and leave before it ends. You don't have to say goodbye when you leave; folks are busy. You can sneak out
  • Mix and mingle with everyone. Avoid the temptation to only talk to your close colleagues and those you know.
  • Make light conversation about holiday shopping, holiday plans, business etc. It is not time to get into the nuts and bolts of work and especially not your career. And it goes without saying that this is not the year to discuss politics. If you are at a prospective client's gathering avoid pitching your business.
  • Eat the food. Someone planned this event and they like to see folks enjoying it. Having said that, don't ask for a to-go box or act as if this is your first meal in months.
  • Alcohol. If you drink, have one or two drinks and then switch to Perrier. Do not drive other colleagues home unless you are a solid and sober designated driver.
  • Different rules for home parties. If it's at your boss' home, bring a small gift. Do not bring a bottle of wine which basically says, 'I didn't put any effort or thought into this.' Instead bring a book you love, a box of fancy candy or something special. If you are attending a party at a home, don't ask for bourbon if only wine is being served. Don't wander the home without asking. If you break something let the host know.
  • Write a thank you note and mail it. This is so rare nowadays. It is very impressive to the receiver.
  • Respect other's boundaries. Be conscious of being overly physically familiar with people you don't know that well. It is a new day and better to err on the safe side.
  • Have fun. But remember, it's business.
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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director