10 Etiquette Tips for Your Holiday Office Party

'Tis the season for holiday parties, and while it can be great fun to celebrate the season with your colleagues, these corporate-sponsored events can also be fraught with stress. Here are 10 tips on how to best navigate them.

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Is the Upcoming Holiday Office Party Stressing You Out?

'Tis the season for holiday parties, and while it can be great fun to celebrate the season with your colleagues, these corporate-sponsored events can also be fraught with stress. From "What should I wear?" to "Do I really have to go?" to "Do I have to talk to senior management?," Shawnice Meador, director of career and leadership services for working professionals at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School's online MBA program, offers answers to the most common questions about these events to help you navigate the events with ease - and maybe even have some fun.

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Do I really have to go to the office holiday party?

Unless you already have a major event scheduled that night -- like your child's annual holiday school play, a family event or a winter wedding -- you should make an effort to go. "Your colleagues took the time to plan a social event for employees to celebrate and enjoy each other's company in a relaxed environment, so even if you are not thrilled about attending, give it a chance. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised that meeting people's spouses and spending time relaxing with your co-workers can get you in the holiday spirit - and maybe even make you more appreciative of your co-workers and company as a whole," says Meador.

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It's my first year with the company and my first holiday party. What are the most important things to remember?

Meador recommends asking veteran colleagues for their advice to get a sense of the rules of engagement. This can include tips on what to wear; how long to stay; whether or not to bring gifts. "If you know what to expect, you can then plan accordingly. You don't want to be that person who shows up in a t-shirt or a silly Santa hat when everyone is in formal attire. In general, it is safe to assume that there will be alcohol served, so remember that this is a work event -- set some boundaries and limits and keep yourself in check. Remember, impressions of your character and professionalism are being made even at off the clock'events like these," says Meador. When you're a new employee, it's better to leave a more conservative impression than one that may color a coworker's view of you professionally.

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I am a major introvert. How do I make holiday parties and networking easier?

Remember that your holiday party is finite -- though, to an introvert it can seem like endless torture. But it's only a few hours out of your life and it's important to interact with your co-workers. "This doesn't mean you have to be in the center of the dance floor or make the rounds chatting up everyone at the company, but sitting in the corner looking at your watch the entire time isn't recommended, either," says Meador. If there is a meal served, it can certainly relieve some of the pressure, as you'll have an easy topic of conversation. If not, Meador says, find a handful of colleagues you already know and whose company you enjoy and stick with them.

If you're allowed to bring a guest, definitely do so, since bringing a significant other or a close friend can help you feel more natural and comfortable at the party. However, do be careful when choosing a guest -- bringing your party animal friend may not be best for this event, she adds.

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What should I wear? What should I avoid wearing?

Try to gauge what's appropriate by asking your co-workers what they plan to wear or what they have worn in the past. For men, it's always nice to wear a shirt and jacket, and it's simple to remove the jacket if the party's more casual, she says. For women, the rules are a little trickier.

"While it is nice to get dressed up and have a fun night out on the town, be sure to think about what will be the most appropriate when choosing your attire for an office holiday party. Sure, that flashy dress might be flattering, but it's not worth risking the positive, professional image you've cultivated in the workplace. Remember, the impressions you make on your co-workers do matter, no matter what the location," says Meador.

A simple rule of thumb: If your attire is not appropriate for work, it's probably not appropriate for the holiday party, either.

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I was invited as a guest to a holiday party given by a company where I would like to be hired. Help!

It is exciting to be invited to a party hosted by a company that may be your next potential employer. While this is a great opportunity to network and make a stellar impression, it is important to keep in mind that you are there to enjoy and celebrate the holiday season; it's not a job interview.

"But, as always, do be prepared for any opportunities to let others know about your professional life. If this opportunity arises, be conscious not to be negative about your current working situation. It's never a good idea to bash your employer, it's much better to spend time talking about what you do and how you can contribute to the company that's hosting the party. Being able to throw in a few insightful comments about the company will demonstrate your knowledge and engagement and show you in a better light," Meador says.

"Remember, it is not just your resume that employers look for, but also how well you engage with colleagues and fit in with the group - the culture. That said, even if you don't get a chance to speak specifically about your qualifications, fitting in and leaving a positive impression overall is ideal," says Meador.

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Should I talk with senior executives?

A holiday party is a great time to get to know your senior executives better, and for them to get to know you. However, remember that they are there to relax and enjoy the party just as you are, not hold a business meeting.

"Executives typically form impressions of people in three ways: Do I think they are capable of high performance? Do I think they are smart? Do I like them? During a holiday party or event, I don't suggest focusing on proving your value to the organization. That conversation is better held in a work environment. Instead, make small talk about something interesting in the business marketplace, the local economy, or even your favorite holiday tradition. Executives are in decision-making mode so much, that they will appreciate thinking about something that does not require an 'executive decision,' and is interesting to discuss," says Meador.

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Should I arrive fashionably late?

"If the party involves a meal, you want to be on time. You don't want to be 'that guy or gal' who walks in late and disrupts people's dinner service. Even if there is not a formal meal, I am a huge proponent of being on time, or at least arriving within 15 minutes of the party's starting time. It shows respect to the party organizers, and it likely will give you more time to catch up with people before the party gets crowded," Meador says.

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Should I buy my boss/bosses or coworkers gifts?

You can't go wrong with giving your boss and co-workers a card to convey Happy Holidays, or with bringing in cookies, candy or a holiday treat to share in the office. "However, my best advice is to ask people who have worked at the office for a while to learn about how gifts were handled in the past. Typically if gifts are the norm, it will be pretty openly discussed at the office, including an appropriate dollar amount to spend. If you manage a team of people, it is nice to write each of them a personal card and give them a little something to recognize their efforts. It can be as simple as giving each employee some holiday candy or homemade baked goods," she says.

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Are there specific people you should try to connect with while at the party?

Meador says there are three people in particular you should try to seek out: First, make contact with the person who planned the party. Be sure to give them at least a quick thank you while you're there. "Next is your boss and their significant other. Wish them a happy holiday and make small talk. Lastly, if you are a boss, make sure to keep a mental checklist of who is there to make rounds and introduce yourself to their guests," says Meador.

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I had a great conversation with a high-level executive at my holiday party. How can I follow up?

This is where your networking skills can shine. "If you had an engaged conversation, it is fully appropriate to send a brief email to an executive or administrator after a party, to thank them for the conversation. Keep the email to three or four sentences, and refer back to something you talked about, so they connect the dots regarding your interaction. The purpose of this email is to say you enjoyed the conversation, and to wish them a happy holiday. However, stay away from asking them to do anything for you at this point. The only exception to this rule is if they specifically asked you to get in contact with them so they could follow up on something they promised to do for you," Meador says.

In that case, briefly remind them of their offer, but don't be pushy by asking for a response in a certain timeframe. If you haven't heard anything once you are into the New Year, then a quick follow-up e-mail is appropriate, according to Meador.

Armed with these tips, you'll be sure to shine at your holiday parties. Now, go grab a few more cookies and some punch and hit the dance floor.