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Office party: Career builder or career killer?

Oppenheim Bernhard | Stone | Getty Images

Brad was feeling optimistic and hopeful as he drove to the large downtown hotel where his company was holding a holiday party. After working as a contractor for more than a year, he was finally being considered for a full-time position. He felt that his interviews had gone well, but the final decision was up to Andrea, the department vice-president. Since the party would give him a chance to talk with Andrea, Brad had memorized a few details from her LinkedIn profile to use as a conversation starter.

Upon arriving at the hotel, Brad got a drink and scanned the room, but there was no sign of Andrea. A couple of hours and several drinks later, he had completely forgotten his strategic conversational plan and was engaged in a loud sports debate with several office buddies. This war of words culminated in a footrace to the glass-enclosed atrium elevator. As the doors closed and the elevator rose, Brad gleefully celebrated his victory by dropping his drawers and mooning the crowd below. Sadly, when he looked down at his assembled colleagues, the first thing he saw was Andrea's horrified expression.

As this unfortunate true story clearly illustrates, office parties present both opportunities and risks.

Career-builder strategies

Parties are supposed to be fun, so it's perfectly fine to just relax and enjoy being with your colleagues. But for those who are more career-driven, there are several ways to make productive use of this recreational time:

  • Talk with people from other departments or functions. Instead of hanging with your usual crowd, make an effort to break through the "silos" which inevitably develop at work.
  • Get to know your boss better. Depending on your manager's "party personality," holiday gatherings provide a chance to either chat on a more personal level or explore broader business issues.
  • Make contact with higher-level managers who are usually inaccessible. Keep in mind that many executives are uncomfortable with small talk, so be prepared with appropriate questions to ask or topics to discuss.
  • Build better relationships with your coworkers. Enjoying social activities together can help to increase team spirit and encourage future collaboration.
  • Broaden your business knowledge. Some people hate talking shop at parties, but for others, work is their favorite subject. By asking the right questions, you might learn a lot.

Career-killer pitfalls

Even if you have no interest in a career-focused party plan, you still want to emerge from the evening with your reputation intact! Most office party nightmares can be traced to a single source: Too much alcohol. Here's what can happen if you choose to overindulge:

  • Incredibly stupid or offensive behavior. In addition to Brad's memorable example, drunken partygoers have also been known to insult the boss, proposition an executive's spouse, reveal confidential information, and pass out in public.
  • Alcoholic amnesia. After the party, you may be the only one who doesn't remember that you called your boss an incompetent idiot. And you may always wonder why you never got that promotion.
  • Permanent reputation damage. Because executives don't see most employees very often, unfavorable party memories leave a lasting impression which can influence future career decisions.
  • Awkward office romances. That spontaneous post-party hook-up might seem like a good idea at the time. But if your coworker takes it more seriously than you, good luck getting back to your previous working relationship.
  • Sexual harassment charges. As alcohol intake increases, people tend to get friendlier and friskier. If you act on these impulses by making unwelcome advances, you could find yourself in legal trouble.
  • Injuring or killing yourself or others. By drinking and driving, you risk ruining not only your career, but also your entire life. If you plan to imbibe, arrange for safe transportation home.

So enjoy your celebrations — but be smart about it. If you want to have a merrier holiday than Brad, just remember that when you're at an office party, you're actually still at work.

— By Marie McIntyre

Marie McIntyre is a career coach (www.yourofficecoach.com) and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Follow her on Twitter @officecoach.

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