Rules of engagement for a trouble-free office party?

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Coaches, lawyers and consultants offer VIRGINIA GALT some sound advice for guests and hosts

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, VIRGINIA GALT WORKPLACE REPORTER Saturday, November 25, 2006

The invitations have been issued or, in some cases, the implicit command to show up and be festive.

Just not too festive, employees are reminded, in the annual don’t-get-sloshed memos that are invariably circulated along with the time and date of The Office Party.

Many employers provide taxi fare home, some offer hotel rooms. Even so, career advisers say, most folks know better than to get blasted at a work-related event — gone are the days when it was not considered a great party unless a fight broke out.

It’s the more subtle aspects of party protocol that often cause the most consternation:

If the boss invites you to a private soirée, is it poor form not to go? How should one handle multiple invitations for the same evening? Is party-hopping acceptable in the business-social context? And, in the embarrassing event that one has overindulged, what should be done in the way of morning-after damage control?

This week, in the spirit of preventing party faux pas and wrapping up the year on a high note, career consultants, executive coaches and employment lawyers offer some words to the wise for hosts and their guests.

On the question of whether an invitation from the boss should be considered a command performance, the experts are divided.

Toronto employment lawyer Paul Boniferro says attendance at these after-hours events should definitely be voluntary. No one should be compelled to go, especially when alcohol is being served, he says.

His firm, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, advises employers who want to ensure “a safe, fun and liability-free holiday season” to clearly spell out expected codes of conduct in advance of the party, to also provide non-alcoholic drinks, to monitor employees for signs of intoxication and confiscate car keys, if necessary — preferably in a way that does not strip all joy out of the occasion.

Quite apart from the legal liability issues, John Walker, dean of hospitality at Toronto’s George Brown College, says a considerate manager would never insist employees attend their party at a time when many would prefer to be socializing with family and friends.

From a career standpoint, coaches and consultants suggest it is better to make the effort to attend than to make excuses — and wonder later whether your refusal might be regarded as antisocial or ungracious.

No-shows will be conspicuous by their absence, particularly if it is a small gathering to which only a select few have been invited, says Toronto-based career counsellor Colleen Clarke.

“People invite you because . . . they want you to be there, there’s a purpose for your invitation.” When you work with the team you are expected to play with the team at the year-end party, Ms. Clarke says.

Chicago-based career consultant John Challenger says he has never heard of a person’s refusal to attend a holiday party being specifically raised in a performance appraisal. However, he adds, his outplacement practice, Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc., is full of out-of-work clients who have not quite grasped that work involves more than business transactions.

Relationships with co-workers and customers are important, says Mr. Challenger, who suggests this is a good time to attend other parties as well. “If a friend invites you to his or her company party, you should go. It is an opportunity to expand your professional network.”

Ms. Clarke says there is nothing wrong with party-hopping as long as you stay long enough to talk to a few people and thank the host. If you can’t make it to an event, respond right away, she says.

Toronto-based career coach Nina Spencer recommends people who feel uncomfortable at parties should take a more sociable friend. And, if you arrive early, you can leave early, she says. It’s better, anyway, not to be the last person standing at the bar, when the staff is cleaning tables and stacking chairs.

Michael Stern, a Toronto-based executive search consultant and coach, says it is unwise to assume that anything said or done at a work-related party is off the record. Candidates for promotion are judged for their social acumen as well as their business skills, he says.

If you are awkward on the dance floor, you don’t have to dance — but try not to be disapproving of those who do. “If everyone is relaxed and letting whatever hair they have down and you’re just a stick-in-the-mud in the corner, that’s not going to work very well,” Mr. Stern says.

If you have celebrated too much and made a fool of yourself, it’s best to go to work the next day, apologize, and make sure it never happens again, Ms. Spencer says.

Most employers and co-workers will forgive a colleague who got a little tipsy once at an office party, as long as they were not offensive, Mr. Challenger says. “Sometimes, however, you can’t control the mess, because the executives were all there.”

Mr. Boniferro says employers and employees are generally quite responsible about not serving or consuming too much alcohol. However, employment law firms still, invariably, get some post-party calls about fist fights, sexual harassment and obnoxious behaviour.

Sometimes workplace tensions spill over to the party and “someone takes the opportunity to tell someone else something they always wanted to tell them,” he says.

Mr. Stern adds that he has two words for those folks who might be inclined to go overboard at the office party: soda water.

Party protocol

For hosts

Invite employees’ spouses or partners: Their attendance seems to have a “moderating effect.”

Do not provide an open or unsupervised bar: Hire professional bartenders and ask them to cut off anyone who has had too much to drink.

Put on a great spread: Provide something a little classier than carrot sticks, slabs of cheese and cheap wine. Treat your guests like royalty.

Keep the music lively: Slow songs can give rise to awkward situations on the dance floor.

Don’t compel employees to attend: Employees have a lot of conflicting demands on their time.

Make lots of introductions: There’s nothing worse than going to a party where you don’t know anyone.

For guests

Try to attend: If you want to appear as one of the team, make an appearance. You don’t have to stay until the end, but stay long enough that colleagues and business associates know you were there.

Avoid too much shop talk: This is not the time to bend your boss’s ear with complaints, or with all the great ideas you have for 2007.

Respond to all invitations: Let the host know as soon as possible if you cannot attend — and, if you commit to going, make sure you do so.

Do not overindulge: Don’t give them something to talk about. You are still “on,” even though the

party is after hours. You will have to face these people tomorrow.

Mingle: Be sociable and talk to people outside of your immediate circle.

Damage control: If you have made a fool of yourself, acknowledge it, apologize and don’t do it again.

SOURCES: BRAD RAFAULI, FRASER MILNER CASGRAIN LLP; NINA SPENCER; COLLEEN CLARKE, COLLEEN CLARKE & ASSOCIATES; JOHN CHALLENGER, CHALLENGER GRAY & CHRISTMAS INC.; FIVE O’CLOCK CLUB; AND JOHN WALKER, GEORGE BROWN COLLEGE