11 Tips to Avoid Office Party Pitfalls, from Maryland Smith Prof
Whether the office holiday party is a cheerful event or a cringe-inducing one — or some of both, management professor Jennifer Carson Marr at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business has advice for navigating potential pitfalls.
Share but don’t overshare: “A holiday celebration at work offers an opportunity to develop relationships with colleagues, supervisors or other higher-ups that you may not always have that much access to,” says Marr, coauthor of “When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers,” published in 2018 by Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. “That can be a real advantage.” Because the parties are more social and informal, they lend themselves to more substantive personal conversations. It can be good or bad. “As it relates to my own research, one of the things that you might do, especially if there is alcohol involved, is ‘over-disclose’ to people who maybe you shouldn’t be over-disclosing to,” Marr says. And when it comes to hierarchical relationships, that can have potentially negative consequences for the work relationship later. “This is the sort of context where it’s easy to let our guards down,” says Marr. “Check yourself. If what you are about to disclose is not something you want your colleagues to know, hold back. These relationships are the same work relationships you have to face the next day in the office.”
Do more asking than telling: “Instead of focusing on what you are going to tell other people about yourself, ask more questions,” Marr says. “Or ask for advice, especially with a supervisor or someone from another department that you wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to speak with.” Research from Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks shows that people who seek advice and ask questions tend to seem more likeable and more competent.
Make a new contact: Don’t just spend the event speaking to your work friends, your supervisor or the people most strategically aligned with your interests. She recommends thinking about who you could talk to and what questions you could ask them before you go. Try to identify common interests and think about what you can learn from someone else, or broadly what you can offer to others. “That can help guide some of your conversations and also maybe make you feel less anxious,” she says.
Invest in it: For working people, a holiday party often requires an actual monetary investment, in the form of a babysitter or festive attire. So before you set out for your holiday gala, make a list of what might make the cost worthwhile, Marr suggests. Maybe a successful 3-minute conversation with a partner or other influential manager will make the party a success.
Avoid the naughty list: Drinking too much at office parties is definitely on the ‘Do Not Do’ list, along with any inappropriate behavior, says Marr. “It’s important to keep in mind that it’s still a professional environment. You want to engage with all your co-workers the way you would be expected to if you were at work.”
Dress for success: Likely you will be expected to dress at least a little more festive than usual. But how much more? Let the venue dictate your attire, or ask the party organizer for dress code guidance. “When in doubt, it never hurts to be slightly more professional than not,” Marr says.
Prepare your “plus-one”: Talk to your partner or spouse about your goals for the party and whom you hope to talk to. “It’s often actually easier for your significant other to help facilitate conversations,” Marr says. Even introverted people find stilted casual-work conversations are easier when they’re doing it on someone else’s behalf. If you’re the plus-one at your partner’s event, treat it like your own work event. Behave appropriately, don’t overdrink and don’t overshare.
Give wisely: If your work group has a gift exchange, make sure they’re inclusive to avoid hard feelings, or concerns about favoritism and fairness. Consider carefully what gifts you exchange with colleagues. “I remember one Secret Santa exchange from a past job, where somebody gave a really inappropriate gift that was clearly intended to be very funny, but would certainly today be viewed as sexual harassment,” she says.
Be sensitive: Remember that the holiday season can be stressful and emotionally draining for lots of reasons, Marr says. And that can sometimes influence interactions at work. Just remember to be extra nice to people at work during the holidays and sensitive to those potential factors.
Behave online: Remember to think about boundaries on social media, too, when posting about gift exchanges and holiday parties. Sometimes your work colleagues might be part of your social media “follower” or “friend” group. Over the holidays, remember anything you post can be seen by anyone in your online audience.
Don’t skip: “Know your work environment,” Marr advises. Sometimes the holiday party is truly optional, and sometimes you’re very much expected to attend. If it’s optional and you want to skip it, she warns, just consider what signals you’re sending, even inadvertently. Marr cites a study from Erin Reid, a researcher at Canada’s McMaster University, which shows that women may be less able to pass on attending work events without being penalized for doing so, compared to their male colleagues.
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