Dos and don'ts of company party etiquette

Here are 13 tips for how to navigate your office party without being Monday's gossip.

The company holiday party is a time to let loose, have a little fun and celebrate the spirit of the season with your colleagues. But it's also a minefield of potential disaster; one false move, and your workplace reputation could be ruined. With the advent of social media, the chances of your exploits going viral raises the stakes even higher.

We asked three etiquette experts for their dos and don'ts of holiday party etiquette. Here are their top tips for balancing fun and good cheer with professionalism and decorum.

1. Do show up -- or, at the very least, RSVP

Be sure to respond to an invitation with 48 hours, regardless of whether it comes via evite, email, telephone or traditional methods, says Sharon Schweitzer, an international business etiquette expert, author and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide.

"As much as you may not wish to attend, you must. Attendance is practically mandatory -- failing to go to the annual holiday party sends a negative message. Executives and upper management will take note if you're not there," Schweitzer says.

If you absolutely can't go, you should at least RSVP with your regrets as early as possible. And if you say you're going to go, you have to follow through, says Michelle Roccia, executive vice president, employee engagement, WinterWyman.

"The company's paying for food, drinks and possibly entertainment for a certain number of people to attend. It not only looks rude if you say you'll make it and then pull a no-show, it's a waste of money," Roccia says.

2. Do arrive and depart on time

Pay attention to the time that you're supposed to arrive and when you should leave, says Schweitzer. "Arriving 'fashionably late' is inappropriate in this corporate setting. So is arriving early; you want to plan on getting there within the first 15 to 20 minutes. And even if you'd rather be anywhere else, don't show up at the end just to make an appearance," Schweitzer says.

Remember that this is not a typical social function, says Justin Lavelle, communications director for public records and people search firm PeopleLooker. "You want to arrive on time, and definitely don't be the last to leave, either," Lavelle says.

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3. Don't bring an extra guest

Be sure to read the invitation carefully so you know the company policy on guests, says Schweitzer. You should discreetly check ahead of time to determine if the event is employees only or if spouses, dates or another Plus One is appropriate, she says.

4. Don't wear that!

Pay attention to the attire guidelines listed on the invitation. The holiday party may be a festive occasion; however, it is still one that's attended by your coworkers and managers, says Schweitzer.

"Leave your short, tight, skimpy or revealing clothing in the closet, or save it for another party that doesn't involve your coworkers. Creating a professional image -- especially for women -- is hard, so don't undermine it in one evening!" she says.

Take your cues from the invitation or from your HR leaders, says Lavelle. Unless the event specifically calls for black tie or casual dress, assume you'll need to wear something just as professional as you would wear to work, he says.

"You're going for 'festive and tasteful.' I can't stress this enough:Make sure you know what the dress code is for the holiday party and don't deviate from it. You need to make sure your guest or significant other is dressed appropriately, too," says Roccia.

5. Do greet hosts, colleagues and party planners

When you arrive at the party, be sure to greet, thank and shake hands with your hosts and the party planners, Schweitzer says. If you're working for a company or partnership owned by more than one individual, be sure to thank all of them.

"Chat briefly and compliment an aspect of the party that you sincerely enjoyed such as the catering, music, or décor. Limit this to five minutes and then move on," she says.

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6. Don't talk shop exclusively

While you want to greet and converse with your hosts, colleagues and their guests, try to avoid talking shop as much as possible, says Schweitzer. Try and view the office party as an opportunity to get to know colleagues a little better on a personal level. Stick with topics such as travel, children, sports, pets and movies, and "remember to avoid politics, sex and religion. Keep discussions positive and no more than five or 10 minutes. Avoid gossiping, complaining and/or bragging. The party is intended to be a time to celebrate the successes of the year. A cheerful mood is in order," she says.

Of course, you can't avoid some shop talk, says Roccia; just make sure you're keeping it professional, light and if you sense the conversation getting too intense, be prepared to change the subject to something a bit more lighthearted, she says.

"The whole idea of an office holiday party is to mix and mingle with coworkers in an informal setting. No one wants to discuss deadlines, upcoming projects or difficult clients. Use this opportunity to get to know other colleagues outside of your immediate department or division and focus on having a good time," Lavelle says.

7. Don't discuss office gossip

Once you're out of the cube and in party mode, it's easy to forget office politics, says Schweitzer. Leave discussion of your personal life out of the evening and stick to more light-hearted topics. Don't complain about your job with your coworkers and above all else, no office gossip. This can come back to bite you in a bad way, especially if executives or management overhear your conversation, Schweitzer says.

8. Don't hide in the corner

Everyone watches the entrance to a room, so when you arrive, do not head straight for the bar or buffet, says Schweitzer. Enter, pause, step to the right, greet and shake hands with the person who's standing there.

"Executives do enjoy speaking with employees, and your company party may be one of the few times you see them in person. Introduce yourself, state the department you work in and shake hands. This is a good time to become visible to your organization's leadership. Greet your superiors, and chat with as many colleagues as you can, introducing yourself to those that you do not know well. Greet co-workers warmly, and with a smile on your face," she says.

As tempting as it may be, you also should resist the urge to spend the entire evening with your office buddies -- get in the spirit and mingle with people from other departments. At all costs, avoid appearing bored and ready to dash for the door, she says.

9. Don't become office gossip

Once you polish off your first drink, it's easy to let loose a bit and forget that these are your coworkers at an office-related event, says Lavelle. You have to face these same people the next day and you don't want to lose their respect -- especially that of the boss.

"This is probably the most common mistake that [employees] make during the holiday party. Alcohol and a loose tongue may add up to a regretful Monday morning equation. Consider drinking tea, club soda or water instead of alcohol; but, if you choose to drink, do so responsibly. Remember to carry your refreshment in your left hand and leave your right hand free for handshaking," Schweitzer says.

"Have a drink or two, but remember not to overdo it even if others are. And unless the party has a karaoke theme, save the singing for your car," Lavelle says. If you do happen to overindulge, make sure you have a transportation plan that doesn't involve driving yourself, Roccia adds. Rideshare services, taxis or asking a trusted colleague to give you a ride are all great options.

10. Don't binge at the buffet

Your company didn't throw a holiday party because they thought you were hungry, so make sure you eat something before you arrive so you're not famished, says Schweitzer.

"Eat a small amount of protein beforehand; be considerate of others and remember your etiquette basics. Keep your hands clean and avoid a mouth full of hors d'oeuvres. Avoid walking around with a full plate, do not double dip or eat over the chafing dish, and properly discard toothpicks, napkins, and plates," she says.

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11. Don't clap for yourself

Holiday parties often double as opportunities to recognize outstanding employees or great work, Schweitzer says. If this is the case, your CEO or other executive leader might offer a toast sometime during the evening.

"When the toast is for a colleague, raise your glass at the conclusion of the toast, when the host raises their glass. Do not touch your glass to everyone else's; it is unnecessary and distracting. Pause afterward and watch -- the recipient will most likely reciprocate with a toast. If you have been a star performer, you may be honored with a toast. Stand and accept it gracefully. Refrain from drinking to a toast offered in your honor; this is akin to clapping for yourself. Be sure to stand and make a toast to the person who toasted you, thanking them for the recognition," she says.

12. Say thank you

When your office party offers food, drink, music and the chance to let loose from the office for a while, it's important to show your gratitude to the party planners, organizers and your boss, says Lavelle. This doesn't have to be elaborate; a quick "thank you" before you leave is all that's necessary.

13. Show up the next day

"Nothing looks worse than calling in "sick" the day after the office party, even if you overindulged and/or stayed out too late afterward," says Lavelle. If you've followed these tips, you shouldn't have this problem, but in the event you do, well, there's nothing to do but suck it up and head to the office.

When celebrated in an appropriate, respectful way, your annual holiday party tradition can create a sense of camaraderie, develop stronger office relationships, show employee appreciation and can be collectively great for morale, says Lavelle. Armed with these tips, you're sure to have a great time and make a wonderful impression.

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