A Night to Remember, Not to Regret

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Office Parties can be successful and rewarding, but also suicidal for your career, depending on your approach. Melissa Douman seeks outs the secrets to a successful event and how to make it a positive experience for everyone.

There are two protagonists in this equation – the organiser and the attending employee. Both have completely different objectives, yet both run the risk of leaving the event less than satisfied and with their career prospects dented.

“The aim of a year-end office party is for employees to have fun, improve relationships with one another and celebrate success”, says event organiser, Martie Steyn. Now, that may sound like a simple recipe, but throw natural human behaviour into a melting pot of personalities, all thrown together by circumstance and not by choice, and you have a potential disaster zone. For that reason, Steyn advises both the organiser and the attending employee to keep things simple.

Organiser

So, for starters, the organiser needs to ‘adequately communicate’ issues such as protocol to employees – venue, time, dress code, cash/open bar, partners/no partners etc – to get things off to a positive start, in the days/weeks preceding the event. An office party organiser is generally on a hiding to nothing. That’s not just because different employees want different things from their end-of-year bash. But, also because “people act very differently in an office environment from how they do in a social one,” says Lorin Bouwin, Public Relations Manager of the Indaba Hotel in Johannesburg. So, the planning is difficult, and you don’t always know what you are going to get from the employee.

“But an office party is a fantastic opportunity to get to know your colleagues on a different level”, says Bouwin. “If everyone is relaxed and the conversation is rolling, then some problem areas or issues that plague the work area may come up and could be dealt with in a very positive way.” 

So what are the boxes that need to be ticked, in order to pull off a function that works for everyone? Steyn believes it’s important to first understand the culture of the organisation before making suggestions or decisions. “Usually we work with the client’s marketing or communications team.” she says. “They have a fair understanding of what’s been done in the organisation previously from a theme perspective, and are in a good position to give advice.”

Budget is one of the first areas of concern and in these ‘post-recessionary’ times, it’s an issue of even greater importance. Smaller companies cannot often afford the lavish parties that bigger businesses can, which sometimes include entertainment, MCs and guest speakers. Steyn suggests that certain formats (lunch events, informal events) can be more cost effective. For example, a small luncheon at a restaurant, evening do at a function venue, party bus, a function with partners, a braai in the office garden, or entertaining at the employer’s house.

“From a menu perspective, it’s vital to ensure that cultural diversity and dietary requirements are taken into consideration,” says Steyn. “So, halaal, kosher, vegetarian, etc, and this also applies to choosing beverages – always have a non-alcoholic option available, as well as alcoholic. Seating arrangements are usually dependent on the tone of the evening (formal/informal) and music is selected according to the theme/message for the evening.”

A tip to consider – being as generous as your budget allows will show your employees that you appreciate their hard work and efforts. Further to that, the location is important, and choosing a location away from the office or the boss’s home can help to make everyone feel comfortable and less supervised, as they’ll be on neutral territory. “Some companies don’t really have the budgets to create a jovial mood, so it sometimes has to come from the guests themselves,” says Bouwin, before going on to explain that entertainers don’t have to be too expensive, and are good at filling those awkward silences, or offering topics to start a conversation.

“We also always advise clients to have a transport solution available for events where alcohol will be served,” says Steyn. “Ultimately, in most cases, it remains the accountability of the individuals to behave themselves, though.”

Employee

And so, on to the employee and the issue of behaving oneself. Firstly, alcohol can be a major attraction at the office ‘do’ and sometimes when an employee is feeling nervous or uncomfortable, it’s easy to over-indulge. But no matter how relaxed or confident those first two drinks make you feel, remember that you start treading a very fine line between being acceptably sociable when only slightly inebriated, to becoming a complete embarrassment when you’ve crossed it. In short, know your limits.

“There is nothing worse than having a drunk at a party – especially when they start behaving badly,” says Bouwin. “It will ensure that they are spoken about for days, if not weeks, after the event, and every year when it is time for the annual party it will be a case of ‘remember when…’”

You can be festive, sociable and have a good time – just never drop your guard. Alcohol and a festive spirit can loosen tongues, and when we relax, it is too easy to reveal things about ourselves that we wouldn’t exactly want our work colleagues to know. Rude and off-colour jokes, foul language and gossiping can also damage one’s image. People might not appreciate a controversial sense of humour and may be offended by obscene and vulgar swearing, while talking about others sends a nasty message about you.

Also, potential hazards of being intoxicated mean you are less likely to control flirtatious behaviour with work colleagues which, on any workday, would be taboo. “A ‘no-no’ is hitting on the boss or, even worse, the boss’s partner,” says Bouwin. “Try to keep your personal life out of the office party. If you are going to get together, do it away from prying eyes and talkative mouths.”

It’s best to avoid any form of flirting, even if you are just being friendly. People respond differently to these gestures and, as innocent as your intentions may be, you could lead someone on, make them feel uncomfortable, or tarnish your reputation by adopting the new ‘creepy’ title. Steyn also has a general rule about dress. Basically, she says, “if you wouldn’t wear it to the office, don’t wear it to the office party!” Her advice is to rather ‘glam up’ corporate attire, so that you look dazzling, but are still dressed respectably.

Office parties are generally intended for employees only, for the simple reason that the dynamics of making a party work with just colleagues is difficult enough. People tend to behave differently when their partner is around, either withdrawing socially or becoming over-confident. It is tough enough keeping yourself in check – a guest could complicate things, so if it is allowed, think very carefully about who you choose to bring along.

You should also be aware of ‘office snakes’, who appear overly nice and concerned about you, encouraging you to drop your guard and share any feelings of disgruntlement or discontent you may have. They can repeat the most innocent comment hinting at any kind of dissatisfaction, to the detriment of your career. So, if you are intent on keeping your job, don’t trust anyone with information that might be misinterpreted and backfire on you.

From an attendance point of view, it is important to go to an office party and stay for at least an hour. Anything less than that or a complete lack of attendance can be taken as a lack of interest in the company, and an employee who appears unpatriotic is likely to be excluded from further invites. This could lead to career suicide.

From an attitude point of view, show that you are having a good time by working your way through the room and meeting and greeting everyone with ‘safe’ conversation. Don’t come across as being overly ambitious about business ideas – just use the time talking to your boss, management, and colleagues about lighter things that reveal a little more about your personality strengths, which will reflect more positively on how they view your ability to perform for their company. If you do end up making a mess of things, “the best way to salvage your reputation is to make light of the situation, admit you were a fool, then put your head down and work your socks off for the rest of the year,” says Dr. Randall S. Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers.

Shew! It sounds like a minefield out there. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Just follow the basic rules, keep things simple and you won’t find yourself going into the Christmas break, having committed career suicide. After all, there’s always next year.

Drinking Facts

One unit of alcohol = half a glass of beer, wine or single spirit per hour. The liver flushes alcohol from the body at the rate of about one unit an hour. Drinking water and eating only help to stop dehydration. So if you want to stay in control, stick to one unit of alcohol an hour.

Be unit aware. Punch bowls, cocktails and large glasses of wine – all can contain three or more units of alcohol per glass. Drink in moderation and in smaller amounts.

Pace yourself. Alternate your drinks, so that you have a soft drink between each alcoholic one.

Men and women are different. Women tend to get drunk faster than men, because they have only 55% water compared to 66% water that makes up a man’s body, thereby helping to dilute his drinks even more. So don’t compete – listen to your body.

Avoid driving the next day. Alcohol can stay present for a good couple of hours and you can still be over the limit the next day.

Employee Don’ts

1. Overindulge

2. Hit on the boss

3. Drive drunk

4. Blab your life story

5. Tell rude jokes in untested company

6. Photocopy parts of your body

Melissa Douman 

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