Modern Etiquette: How to survive the office party

Jo Bryant is the London-based etiquette advisor for Debrett's, the UK's modern authority on all matters of manners and behavior. The opinions expressed are her own. Debrett's website is

Revellers dance at an office Christmas party in London December 13, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The Mad Men-esque days of over-the-top office parties where co-workers got roaring drunk, and ended up wearing lampshades are out of style.

Fortunately for everyone, the office party has matured, by and large, into a more relaxed event where workers can actually socialize and enjoy the holidays without thinking about deadlines, or getting hit on by Bob from marketing.

Plan early.

If you’re in charge of scheduling the office party, start planning as soon as possible. Send invitations or let employees know the date, time and location at least one month in advance so they can plan accordingly. Also be sure to let co-workers know if the invitation includes spouses and significant others or even children.


Make sure they feel included and comfortable. Let them know what to wear, and give them a heads up on the names of bosses and colleagues who are likely to be there. At the party, don’t ditch them. Make sure you introduce them to your important workplace family. If there is a seated dinner, this is one event when couples are seated together.

Gift exchanges.

Avoid purchasing a gift for your boss, unless you go in on it as part of a large group; otherwise, you look like you’re currying favor. If your office is holding any type of gift exchange, come prepared. Keep your choice office-appropriate (hand lotion, yes; perfume, no), and stay within any rules, especially regarding price. Be a good sport and participate in the exchange; it shows you are a team player.

You’re going to have to talk to someone.

If the thought of party small-talk makes you sweat, don’t panic. People who blather on are usually the ones who embarrass themselves, not the quiet type. Simply think before you speak. Provide a frame of reference when you introduce yourself, “Hi, I’m Sarah; I just joined accounting this summer.” Have a list of potential topics in mind that will help you get a conversation going: current news, pop culture, and sports are all good places to start. Try to avoid yes or no questions. “What are your plans for the holidays?” will generate a more detailed response than “Are you traveling for the holidays?” And remember, the wallflower near the buffet is probably looking for a conversation just as much as you are.

Be present

Though this is an office party, leave your work at your desk. Switch off mobile devices or set to silent. If you must take a call or check an email, step away from the party. Give your attention to those you are chatting with -- don’t look over their shoulder while you look for someone more important to speak to.

Was photocopying your backside ever a good idea?

People who drink too much at office parties are taking the risk of seriously harming their professional careers. The chemistry you thought you had with Jennifer at the holiday office party may seem less than romantic in the clear, sober office environment. And management may think twice about trusting you with their biggest client after your drunken Karaoke rendition of Lady Gaga’s latest hit song. The safest way to avoid any embarrassing situations is to stay in control and limit your drinking.

Be thankful.

Be sure to thank the host of your party, as well as any of the people who worked to plan the event.

Editing by Steve Addison