How to behave at your company party

The annual end-of-the-year office party is making a comeback, according to a new survey. But along with that spirit of revelry comes an environment fraught with potential HR problems.

Company parties are a chance for workers to unwind, and with corporate profits on the upswing, more companies are celebrating their employees’ success. Nearly 90% of US firms in a survey conducted by outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas are throwing holiday parties this year. That’s up from 83% in 2012 and 68% in 2011. Challenger, Gray & Christmas did not conduct the survey last year.

Despite their morale-enhancing benefits, parties represent a minefield for managers and employees globally. A recent survey in the UK underscores this point: According to the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), 87% of workers have seen colleagues drink too much at the company party, and 48% have gone to work with a hangover the day after the party. Research and anecdotal evidence also suggest that sick days rise the day after a party at which a few too many people had a few too many drinks.

Management walks a fine line: It wants employees to have a good time, but not go home with a headache. It also wants to avoid the HR or legal headaches that can accompany a party gone wild.

“Fallout from the festive party can be a worry for managers,” Charles Elvin, chief executive of the ILM, said in a news release. “It is important that leaders communicate exactly what behaviour will be tolerated and what behaviour will not, and as always, lead by example. You can’t offer a free bar all night then complain when people drink too much.”

How can companies avoid being Scrooge but also prevent those HR and legal headaches? Here are tips from interviews with finance executives and other sources:

  • Have the party during work hours. Inconvenient scheduling is the biggest complaint that workers have about company parties, according to a survey by OfficeTeam. Shannon Stith, CPA, CGMA, the CFO at Thomas Cuisine Management in Meridian, Idaho, said her company chose to have its party on a Friday afternoon instead of during non-work hours to make it easier for employees to attend without missing out on family time. For most organisations, a Friday party also eliminates day-after decreases in productivity.
  • Go off-site. More companies are heading out of the office than in 2012, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, and OfficeTeam’s survey shows that employees are most interested in a party that isn’t at the office. It feels like more of a reward when the event is not on company premises.
  • Serve more than snacks. Having a substantial meal not only pleases your workers but also helps counteract the effects of alcohol on partygoers. The Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey said that 41% of companies plan to serve alcohol at parties, compared with 48% who said they would serve alcohol in 2012.
  • Set clear guidelines. Companies can use a voucher system for drinks so that workers understand their employer’s expectations. Some companies will arrange transportation or hotel rooms for employees, especially when the party is at night. And reminding employees that the event is still a work function is never a bad thing: 15% of OfficeTeam survey respondents listed misbehaving coworkers as what they most disliked about parties.

Should I go to the party?

For employees, the party is a chance to get to know co-workers better. It can be a place for you to talk business, but don’t make your party conversation all about work, and certainly don’t bend an unsuspecting colleague’s ear with a rant about your boss.

Stith said it’s a good career move to attend the company party because the event gives workers exposure to middle and upper management. “It gives others a chance to get to know you individually,” Stith said. “For me, we get to see who our next leaders are in the company.”

Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, an affiliate of global staffing firm Robert Half, agrees. “Executives may use holiday parties as an opportunity to scout for workers that have leadership potential,” he said.

Here are other tips for workers:

Don’t overdo it. This applies to what you eat, drink, and wear. Have fun, but remember the managers are still watching. The ILM survey showed that 30% of workers thought bad behaviour at an office party had had a negative impact on their career.

Mingle. This doesn’t mean deserting your immediate co-workers, but the office party is a good time to meet people in other departments. Some of those people might end up helping you find your next job or picking you to work on a company project.

Avoid gossip. It’s never a good time to talk about a co-worker behind his or her back, but it’s especially ill-advised when you might have had a glass or two of pinot noir. In the ILM survey, 28% of managers said they would reprimand workers for revealing colleagues’ secrets.

Don’t be memorable. Two years ago, The Creative Group cited several holiday party fouls. The list included some of the craziest behaviour respondents had seen at parties. Two worth mentioning:

  1. “An employee was caught loading his car with food from the holiday party.”
  2. “My co-workers were competing on the dance floor to see who could do the best moves. It turned into a fight, and they both were let go for inappropriate behaviour.”

Don’t be those people.

Neil Amato ( is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.