How to Win Your Holiday Office Party, According to an Etiquette Expert

Celebrate the season without seeming unprofessional.

Just say yes


RSVP to your company holiday party invitation within 48 hours—and make the answer yes. Even if it’s the same night as your neighbor’s big bash or you have no desire to see your coworkers after the workday, don’t even think about skipping this event. “Attendance is practically mandatory,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. “If you’re only going to one party this year, make sure it’s your office holiday party.” If you skip, your higher-ups will notice, and could start drawing conclusions that you’re not a team player. Check out these other little etiquette rules you should always practice.

Dress for the occasion


Not sure what to wear? If the invitation doesn’t specify business casual or holiday attire, use the location and invitation style as a guide for whether to dress up or down for the event. If that doesn’t help clear things up, ask a coworker or stalk your company’s Facebook page. “Most folks have a social media legacy. Go back and see albums from the past couple of years,” says Schweitzer. Pick an outfit that seems on level with what employees wore to past holiday parties. Avoid these outfit mistakes that make you look messy.

Keep it classy


It might have “party” in the name, but this is still a business event, so choose something a little more elegant than your usual sexy party dress. “Leave tight, short, and revealing clothing in the closet,” says Schweitzer. “You’ve created a professional image. You don’t want to undermine that in one evening.”

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Ask about a plus one


Don’t assume your partner is invited to attend the office holiday party with you, or you could end up in an awkward situation. “Many companies are cutting costs and don’t necessarily have someone bring a plus one,” says Schweitzer. Check the HR manual or ask a coworker who has been to past parties about the unwritten rules about bringing a guest. Check out these effortless ways to be more courteous.

Arrive on time


No one will be impressed if you arrive fashionably late to a work party. “If you really don’t want to attend, don’t come at 30 minutes until the end just to make an appearance—it’s really obvious to everyone,” says Schweitzer. Show up near the start time to show you’re grateful for the celebration. (You can always use these tips to outsmart the annoying reasons you're always late.)

Thank the host


As soon as you walk through the door, keep an eye out for the host and the party planner. Once you spot them, shake hands and thank them for putting the event together. “It leaves a very positive, favorable impression because it shows you are expressing gratitude for something they’ve gone out of their way to do,” says Schweitzer. “Some companies as cost-saving are cutting back on holiday parties, so don’t give the impression that you feel like you’re entitled to it.” Just keep the chat brief so you don’t hold anyone up.

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Know the right thing to say


Company get-togethers are your chance to get to know colleagues on a more personal level, so don’t fall back into talking shop. “You don’t want to talk about business, because once you start talking about that, it’s no longer a party,” says Schweitzer. “You might as well go back to the office and start working.” Other topics to avoid? Politics, sex, and religion, says Schweitzer. Instead, stick with less controversial topics like travel, books, movies, and sports, or use these conversation starters that make you seem more interesting.

Keep it positive


Gossiping and complaining will only bring you down at what’s meant to be a cheerful occasion. “The whole purpose of the party is to celebrate the successes of the year,” says Schweitzer. If the person you’re chatting with is saying something you wouldn’t want your boss to overhear, make a graceful exit. Memorize these magic phrases that can save an awkward conversation.

Mix and mingle

iStock/Todor Tsvetkov

This is your chance to get to get to know people in other departments, so don’t stay glued to your usual office buddies. Limit conversations to about five or 10 minutes so everyone has a chance to work the room, says Schweitzer. “Otherwise it looks like you’re staying with one person the whole night and not making an effort to mix and mingle,” she says. When you're mingling, try these tips for making great small talk.

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Don’t arrive famished


“You were not invited because the holiday party host thought you were hungry or thirsty,” says Schweitzer. “They are inviting you to socialize.” Eat a little protein before you arrive so you aren’t tempted to pile your plate too high, she says. Try to observe these dining etiquette rules.

Please drink responsibly


Limit yourself to two drinks so you don’t let your guard down too much. “Alcohol and a loose tongue definitely add up to a regretful Monday morning situation,” says Schweitzer. If you do want to indulge, start with a glass of water with lime, then keep alternating alcoholic drinks with H2O.

Say goodbye to the host


Plan to head out about 15 or 30 minutes before the end of the party so you don’t hold things up. Before you step out the door, thank the host for something specific you loved about the party, whether it’s the décor, catering, or music. “Limit that conversation to five minutes or less, then make a graceful exit,” says Schweitzer. “You don’t want a long, drawn-out goodbye.”

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