10 Tips for Surviving the Office Holiday Party

Oct 27, 2015

By Jack Lambert, Staff Writer

Holiday parties offer a chance to relax, unwind, and celebrate the year’s accomplishments. Unfortunately, such a festive atmosphere can cause some employees to overindulge in holiday spirits and potentially embarrass themselves in front of friends and coworkers.

This can make the holiday party a confusing or stressful situation for new hires, young partners, or fellows. No one wants to be that employee who embarrasses themselves, intentionally or unintentionally, at the party.

Four experts (see sidebar) gave their advice on how early-career medical professionals can thrive and survive at the holiday office party. Bonus: this advice works equally well if you’re attending an office party as the guest of a significant other or friend.

1. Remember, the party is still work.

The drinks are flowing and the music is rocking. Still, the holiday party is as much part of the work day as the quarterly department meeting. You are not drunk, vulgar, or inappropriate during those meetings. The same rules apply here.

“Recognize that this is work. You have to go in there with a strategy to build relationships and not embarrass yourself,” Kate Zabriskie said. “Everything else is just tactics.”

2. Like work, attendance is (mostly) mandatory.

Family commitments or a substantial fear of social functions, if explained to your boss, are acceptable reasons to miss the party. Otherwise, you need to be there. Physicians are a reflection on their institution, and the holiday party is a way of thanking the people who keep that institution running.

“You are there for your staff,” Dr. James Salwitz said. “Everybody in a medical office, no matter who they are, is vital and critical. These kinds of parties are a real opportunity to say thank you, because you often don’t have the time to do that on a daily basis.”

3. Mingle, even if that’s not your thing.

Not great at small talk? That’s okay; you’re not required to learn everyone’s life story at the holiday party. You should, however, talk to as many people as possible. It’s not only polite, it will help you make important career contacts. Cliché conversation topics—travel plans, the weather, sports—are perfectly acceptable. Another easy way to start a conversation is asking about the other person.

“My rule is when I meet someone, I want them to teach me something,” Dr. Salwitz said. “Maybe it is about their kid or about the weather. Each party you go to, it gets easier and easier.”

One guideline for holiday party chitchat: Don’t talk about work!

4. Keep the conversation positive; you don’t know who’s listening.

Quick quiz: Do you know which physicians eat lunch together every Thursday? Whose wife plays in the same fantasy football league as your boss? Whose husband serves on the PTA with the CFO?

You probably don’t, yet, as you’re new to the institution. That means you can never be sure who might carry your party conversation back to the office. So keep it light and positive. Don’t complain about coworkers or bureaucracy, and don’t share office gossip.

“You don’t know what the hidden alliances are, you don’t know what the connections are,” Dr. Patty Ann Tublin said. “There are the decision makers and the power brokers on the organization chart, and then there are the ones you don’t know about.”

5. Bring along a friend, if you can.

Nothing gets you out of a floundering conversation faster than the phrase, “Excuse me, I have to go check on my spouse/significant other/friend.”

Check beforehand if you’re allowed to bring a plus-one, and be strategic about who you bring. A brand-new romantic partner may not be the best choice; a longtime friend or partner, however, is perfect as a dance partner, a conversation booster, or a facilitator to meeting new people. Another set of eyes and ears helps you read the room and, perhaps most importantly, gives you a built-in excuse when it’s time to leave.

6. Remove every romantic notion from your head.

This does not cover sexual harassment, office hookups, unwanted passes at employees, hitting on coworkers’ spouses, or any other behavior that is unacceptable before, during, or after the holiday party. Rather, this is for the person who has seen Love Actually too many times, the one planning the big romantic gesture at a work-sponsored event.


Even with the best of intentions, it’s not appropriate. Again, the holiday party is work, and you don’t make romantic declarations at your staff meetings.

“That other person may not be sharing those same interests,” Mariana Bugallo-Muros said. “Even if you do it non-inebriated and in a very respectful way, it could go south very quickly.”

7. Drink responsibly.

Self-explanatory. One or two drinks is fine, but the minute you feel your tongue getting loose is the minute to stop. Not only do you not want to be remembered as the “lampshade on the head” person from the party, state medical boards can also sanction doctors identifiable in photos who look intoxicated, Dr. Salwitz said.

“[Do not] get yourself photographed online drunk or with a drink in your hand in such a way that the picture shows that you’re a physician,” he said.

8. You’re the new person— behave accordingly.

Maybe your boss is on their fifth glass of wine and heading for the dance floor. Is that good? Probably not, but they have years of service that will hopefully help lessen any potential embarrassment. As a young professional, you don’t yet have that reservoir of goodwill built up, and people are less likely to forgive and forget your actions.

“It’s very easy for younger people to get confused when they see the senior employees falling all over themselves,” Ms. Zabriskie said. “Remember, they’ve been working there 35 years. They’ve earned the privilege to do this. I’m not saying it’s a good choice on their part, but it’s very different.”

9. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay there.

By the time the DJ cues up Semisonic, you should already be gone. Last call is reserved for company veterans or party organizers. A good rule of thumb is that an after-hours work event should typically last less than four hours. Three hours in, if everyone has delivered their speeches and you’ve worked the room sufficiently, feel free to leave.

“You should never, as a new hire, be the last person to leave,” Ms. Zabriskie said. “If you’re still there at 12 AM, you’ve been there too long.”

10. Then again, after-party? Do what feels right.

Our experts disagreed about the wisdom of going along if a group moves the party to a second location, so use your own best judgment.

On one hand, the after-party can mean more alcohol and fewer inhibitions— not always the smartest combination. Plus, you may just want to go home after the holiday party. In that case, it’s fine to turn down an invitation for drinks or to go for just a few minutes.

“It’s really about setting boundaries around the time allotment and what you’re doing,” Ms. Bugallo-Muros said. “Sometimes people really do share too much at [after-party] events. It’s one thing to share them with someone you’re close with at work, but it’s another thing to share them with your boss.”

On the other hand, an after-hours drink can create friendships. It can be fun seeing people away from work-sanctioned events and these outings may facilitate working relationships down the road.

“Any time you can have direct access to the decision makers and the people who are influential in helping you move upward in your career, you grab it,” Dr. Tublin said.

If you go, the same rules from the holiday party still apply. Keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum and your conversation positive. Be friendly but remain professional with coworkers and leave before closing time. It might be the holidays, but when you’re at the holiday party, you’re still on the clock.

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