Office parties can lead to career joy or sorrow

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Office parties are fun and games and all you have to do is to show up and have a good time. If you believe that, your job may be in jeopardy.

"How you behave at an office party can absolutely make or break your career," said Kathryn Sue Young, associate professor of communication at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa.

"If you make a mistake, if you drink too much, if you're not prepared with good conversation topics or if you ask the boss about a work-related issue when you're supposed to be relaxing -- in most cases in Corporate America, you will pay the price because an office party is not the place to do those things," she said.

Young is aware that many workers don't pay enough attention to the possible ramifications of behaving improperly at an office party. So in 1989 she introduced a session on how to navigate office parties as part of her 15-week course on organizational communication. She leads the students through the ins and outs of office parties and holds a trial party for the class.


The professor, who has a doctorate and a master's degree in speech communication, first introduced the topic of office parties at Mansfield in 2000. It's given every other year; the next one will be in 2005. The office party segment only counts for 5 percent of the total course grade.

But in the world of work, it really counts:

"Office parties are professional communication in a 'social business' setting," said Young, co-author of "Oral Communication: Skills, Choices and Consequences."

And "social business" setting is not an oxymoron, she emphasizes.

"Anytime you're being observed by a boss or a colleague, you have to be professional," she said.

There are basic rules of good office party behavior, the professor said, in addition to the ones everyone knows -- that you should not drink too much or hit on colleagues.

"Be prepared for conversation," said Young. "Know what you want to talk about with the boss, such as a hobby, sports or children -- but not about business."

But the boss isn't the only person you should converse with, she adds. "Talk to everyone in the room, the boss' significant other, your colleagues. Pay compliments. Say something that doesn't sound like schmoozing."


Being friendly with everyone pays off. "A former student of mine went to an office party where he talked to everyone and ended up spending a lot of time talking to the janitor," said Young. "He didn't know it, but the janitor was the brother of a higher-up, who was very impressed. Because of that office party, he became very visible."

And how do you handle argumentative drunks? "Get them out of the room, quickly. Link arms and lead them away."

Since office parties can be so perilous, wouldn't it be much smarter just to avoid them? The professor says no.

"You need to be seen," Young said. "And your absence is noted."

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