The Unspoken Etiquette of Your Holiday Office Party

There’s an unspoken etiquette of your holiday office party. While a party is suppose to be fun, your holiday office party isn’t a normal party. In fact, you “party” at your own risk. Here’s the etiquette that will guarantee your career is still intact the day after!


By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

For your holiday office party, the boss rented out the ballroom, ordered a bounty of drinks and food, and paid for the band. Surely, the boss wants you to let loose, indulge, and thoroughly enjoy yourself. Doing anything else would be a poor show of gratitude on your part. Plus, your good work ethic all year long gives you a holiday office party pass to revelry!


Sorry to break it to you, but when the words “party” and “office” appear on the same invitation, the emphasis ALWAYS remains on the word “office.”

While it’s called a party, it’s one in name only. Technically, it’s a time for you to show the office what your best self is like when you’re out of the office.

All eyes are on you. The boss(es), your co-workers, people from other divisions, and even the wait staff are seeing you represent your business and your professional ethics at the party, and they shouldn’t differ very much from how you do, or would, conduct yourself in the boardroom.

There’s an unspoken etiquette of your holiday office party, and when people don’t know it, or simply choose not to follow it, they do so at their own risk. Career reputations have been tarnished, people have missed out on promotions, and some even have been fired for showing a side of themselves at the holiday party that was startlingly different than the one at the office.

Let’s explore the etiquette now so you can be certain that your reputation is the same, if not better, after the party than before it.

The Unspoken Etiquette of Your Holiday Office Party

1. The invitation might say the dress code is “Holiday festive” or “Cocktail attire,” but don’t show much more skin than you would at a business meeting. It’s OK if your dress has spaghetti straps or even no straps as long as your cleavage is invisible or almost invisible. Your hemline can be shorter than on a regular workday, but not by much. Follow the 8 1/2″ by 11″ rule to know what constitutes “too short.” Place a piece of standard-size paper on your lap while sitting in a straight-back chair. If the piece of paper covers more skin than your dress, the dress is too short for anything to do with the office. Sequins and high heels are fine. But leave the fishnets for a non-work-sponsored party. Oftentimes, the wording of dress codes can be hard to decipher. “Holiday Festive” is one person’s Christmas kitten sweater and another person’s little black dress. This post, Six Easy Tips for Knowing What to Wear, defines the most often used dress codes year round.

2. Guys should dress one step above what they think they should wear. Not sure if you should wear a tie? Wear one! You can always remove it at the party if you feel it’s too much. The same with a suit coat or sports coat. If the invitation states “Holiday festive” or “Cocktail attire,” a tie and jacket will make sure you’re well suited (pun intended) for the evening! Take a look at Six Easy Steps for Knowing What to Wear to see whether what you’re planning to wear is in line with what your host has in mind.

3. What your date or spouse wears and how that person acts is just as important as what you wear and how you act. The person you married or are dating speaks volumes about the choices you make. No one will judge you negatively if your beloved doesn’t look like a supermodel, but they will judge you if that person is dressed inappropriately, can’t keep up with the conversation, cusses, gets tipsy, or worse.

My husband and I sadly watched a career go down in the course of a three-hour Christmas party several years ago. A rising star in the company lost his promised promotion to Director of the New York and New England Region on the Monday after the party because of his actions and those of his date. They got drunk, clumsy, clingy, and loud. She threw cuss words into her sentences as liberally as a bad chef tosses salt into his soup. And the drunker she got, the less she seemed to care that her micro-mini dress was creeping up and up on her. As for him, in the midst of his dance moves, he bumped into someone on the dance floor causing them to fall down hard. 

It was their second or third date. Never bring anyone to an office party whom you don’t know well. And it’s perfectly polite to share what your company culture is like and go over the dress code with the person you bring. Share what you’ll be wearing, and then share what you’ve seen other women and men wearing at past parties; or, if this is your first, what you’ve been told by co-workers that people usually wear.

4. When possible, say hello or goodbye to the host(s) and thank them for the party. You always want to thank the boss. It’s easy if the party is small, but if it’s a huge event, that might not be possible. If it is possible, make sure to do so without taking up more than a moment of the boss’s time.

If the boss doesn’t know your name, also introduce yourself and your spouse or date. You’ll win points for brevity, so you could extend your hand to shake and say something like this: “Ms. Holden, I’m Kristen Elders in marketing at the Oakland office. This is Jonathan, my husband. We wanted to say thank you for a lovely evening. The food, especially the shrimp, was delicious. It’s been a wonderful part of our holiday celebration. Thank you again.” At this point, let her lead the conversation, and then exit.

You’ve just completed a perfect, gracious thank you!

If Ms. Holden introduces you to Xavier, her husband, then as you shake his hand, you’ll want to say something like, “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Holden.” If you wonder whether to call the big boss and his or her spouse or significant other Mr. or Ms., you can check out this post about the modern use of Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss and more. 

At a small party, you’ll want to say both hello and goodbye to the host. But when you leave, leave quietly. Once the first few people leave, a party starts to end even if it’s ending before it should.

5. Never corner the boss, and steer the conversation away from business with your co-workers. If the boss asks you a business question, answer it, but when talking to your co-workers, use this as a time to get to know more about them personally without getting too personal. Ask about their hobbies, favorite authors, TV shows, places they’ve traveled or dream about visiting, holiday traditions, and such. If you know they have children, you can ask about their children.

Keep the conversation light, and since you need to mingle, after a few minutes say, “I promised myself that I would say hello to Bethany, Ron, and Eduardo this evening. It’s been great chatting with you. But, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back.” (If you won’t be back, then leave that part out and instead shake their hand. Why shake their hand? It psychologically makes your goodbye official. You no longer need to chat with them again during the party.)

Christmas office party etiquette


6. Pay special attention to the spouses of the people you work closely with. You probably spend more waking hours near your close co-workers than their own spouses do. It can be off-putting when spouses hear so much about a particular member of the opposite sex from their husband or wife. Put their mind at ease by engaging them in conversation, introducing them to your own spouse, talking about your families, and the like. Besides, now when Shanna comes to work and tells you another hilarious story about something that happened while her husband was coaching their son’s little league team, you’ll be better able to picture it.

7. If you know the boss’s assistant(s), thank them. We all know that the assistant did 95 percent or more of the planning for the party. Your thank you will help make all the work seem worthwhile. Plus, it’s always good to be in good with the boss’s assistant.

8. You don’t bring a hostess gift unless the party is held at someone’s home. No matter who hosts the party, if it’s at someone’s home, the hostess gift is given to the person(s) who graciously opened their home for the party. There are some commonly given hostess gifts that usually aren’t appropriate. You can find out what would be a great item to give in this post about hostess gifts.

9. Nurse your drink. Everyone around you may be drinking hard and fast, but not you or your spouse/date. Drink slowly and drink no more than one glass of wine, beer, or alcohol per hour. It’s better if you don’t exceed two the whole evening.

You need your wits about you, and you need for others to know that you don’t need alcohol to fuel your Christmas spirit.

If people (even the boss) are urging you to “keep up with them” (it really is awful when people do that), say something along the lines of, “I’m fine, thanks. Plus, I’m the designated driver.”

Soda water or ginger ale with a twist of lime is a great walk-around drink. Never feel like you should drink if you don’t. I don’t drink, and I don’t pretend to just because it’s what others are doing. Alcohol is a personal choice, and if someone questions you about it, they’re being rude. Just politely answer, “I don’t drink, but please go ahead.”

You’ll find me with either water or ginger ale, and there’s nothing wrong with tea or coffee, either. Just make sure you don’t take a hot beverage to the dance floor in case it spills and splatters hot liquid on someone.

Christmas office party etiquette

10. A thank you note is sometimes in order. For a simple party in the break room, a potluck party in a meeting room, or a pay-to-attend party at a large venue, no thank you card is needed. If it was a formal party or one in someone’s home (potluck or not), a thank you note is in order. (Here’s a post on how to write a great one easily.) If you’re close to the host(s), or the party was held in their home, send the thank you note to their home. If it was a large corporate party, send the thank you note to the boss at the boss’s business address. In that case, a separate note can also be sent to the assistant(s) if you KNOW that they were involved actively in planning the party.

What Happens At the Holiday Office Party…..

They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas; I can assure you that’s not true. The ramifications of what people choose to do always have either negative or positive ripples that follow them. ALWAYS.

The same can be said of the holiday office party. A person’s words and actions have a ripple effect that lasts long after the party is over and the holidays are behind. What happens at the party doesn’t stay at the party; it follows the partygoer’s business reputation throughout the coming year and on, and on, and on.

What’s Next?

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Blessings galore,

Maralee McKee's Signature




Here's the unspoken etiquette of your holiday office party. Whether it's a casual company get-together or a grand corporate affair, here you'll find tips to help you navigate the party in such a way that you'll help your career while enjoying the party. #christmasparty #holidayofficeparty #officeparty



Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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