Even if you've never, ever been the kind of employee who had to call in mortified the day after an office party, chances are that you aren't thinking strategically about the kind of impression you want to give at this year's event.
More likely, you're just wondering how long you should feel obligated to stay. Consider this annual get-together as your chance to help as many people as possible make a positive association between your face and your e-mail address. Here's how:
Step 1: Talk to everyone except your cubicle mates. This party is your chance to find out where the extra freight elevator is located, why the color copiers are always breaking down and who handles all of those irate customer service calls (and how she does it).
It's also your chance to thank people from outside your department who make your job a little easier, like the IT guy who cheerfully unfreezes your computer and the studio manager who helps you make the final FedEx pickup of the night -- every night.
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Step 2: Embrace the awkward first 15 minutes. Show up when the party starts, says Devora Zack, author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, and it will be easier to talk to other early birds before their friends arrive and the music drowns everyone out. If you have to go late, another strategy for meeting new people is to find a line, whether it's for the bathroom or the buffet. "You can talk to the people in front of you and behind you, and there's a natural close to the conversation when you get to the front of the line," says Zack.
Step 3: Get the boss talk out of the way. Don't avoid your supervisor; she'll inevitably notice and remember this when you're back in the office. "Your boss doesn't want to talk about projects at a party," says Zack.
Not even a five-minute quickie suggestion that you know will save everyone hours of work next week. Now is just not the time. You do, however, have a highly effective non-work conversation topic at your fingertips: New Year's plans. Ask her what she's doing and the conversation might lead to how she feels about New Year's Eve or resolutions. But if it ends with you wishing her a safe, fun trip to Cortina, that's not bad either.
If your boss is the one who missed the memo about getting drunk as well as the one about blabbing about hitting on the client, "the best way to handle this is to exit the conversation ASAP and never speak of it again -- not to your boss or anyone else," says Zack.
The worst thing you could do, Zack says, is to sprint over to your friends and repeat the conversation word for word. If your boss goes down in a blaze of humiliation, so will you.
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Step 4: Don't be tempted by the free top-shelf tequila. Stick to one drink. Yes, this is standard (not to mention boring) advice, but in case that initial drink awakens an intense craving for a second, remind yourself of what British researchers recently found: that people who drank alcohol at an event or place they hadn't done so before (not unlike an office conference room) tended to be more uninhibited than those who drank the same amount in a place they were familiar with (like their patios).
For real-life supporting evidence, look no further than the Manhattan publishing executive who was sued a few years ago by a female employee who said he prodded her to kiss another woman at a holiday party or the AOL U.K. employees who used a photo booth at an office party to snort cocaine and strip off their shirts -- without realizing all photos were immediately uploaded to a company website.
Step 5: Don't go up to the VIPs unprepared. There he is: the best-known, highest-paid decision maker in your organization. You maneuver your way through the crowd to his side, introduce yourself and then ... offer your opinion about the canapés. This is not a good use of anyone's time. Later, you realize you should have mentioned his holiday e-mail to the staff or his last big, well-received idea.
This is where the planning comes in. Zack suggests being specific and avoiding general comments like, "I heard your book was great." At the very least, thank him for the party.
"Executives have told me that after a party with 40 employees, only one person will thank them," says Zack. (It's a sure bet they remembered who that one person was.) The VIP might ask you about your role at the company. "Don't just say, 'I work in production,' which is what most people do," says Zack. "Instead, tell them one thing you love about your job. People tend to light up when they talk about things they enjoy," she says. Keep the conversation brief: "Two to three minutes, tops."
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Step 6: Avoid any and all kvetching. As soon as you see your colleagues, you're going to be tempted to complain or gossip. Zack says this is one of the riskiest things you can do because you never know who might overhear, remember or repeat your comments.
She was once in a bathroom when two co-workers were gossiping about a third. Suddenly, the victim threw open the door of one of the stalls and said, "You don't know anything about me!" before storming out. "They were deservedly mortified," says Zack.
Step 7: Move to a new group after every third sip of your drink. Make it a point to circulate before you hear (or tell) the same stories twice. Refer to your list of easy conversation enders: "I'm going to the bathroom," "I'm going to the bar for a glass of water," and "I'm going to the buffet." Zack's more professional standbys include, "I'm sure you have other people you want to talk to," and "I promised myself I'd circulate."
We once knew an executive who was able to introduce us to the nearest co-worker (in a flattering way), quickly summarize what we'd been talking about and then hand off the conversation and slip away with a smile.
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Step 8: At karaoke parties, play to the crowd. As much as you avoid stepping up to the mike in your personal life, you're part of the company, which means your job tonight is to sing at least one song. Period. We asked the managers at some of the country's most popular karaoke bars to tell us the crowd-pleasers that even a novice can handle.
Every single one nominated "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey. "When this song starts playing, everyone will join in," says Teddy Mui, general manager of Winnie's in New York City.
Did someone already sing this? Go with "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond. "It's the best song for office parties -- and non-office parties too," says Frank Huang, the karaoke host and event coordinator at the Mint in San Francisco. "Everyone knows the chorus: 'So good! So good!' So catchy!" Want to get the crowd swaying and snapping instead of belting out the tune with you? Elton John is your best friend: Mui and Huang recommend "Tiny Dancer" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," which is great for duets.