Happy Hour Etiquette: How to Behave at After-Hours Functions

The end of the year is fast approaching, which means countless office holiday parties are just around the corner. Attending a work holiday party or happy hour can be a fun way to engage and network with coworkers in a relaxed setting. However, if you imbibe too much, it’s also a good way to torpedo your career. No matter how festive the atmosphere, remember that your actions affect your professional reputation.

You should view an office outing as an ideal opportunity for others to see another side of you — your social side. Use this to your advantage by getting to know distant coworkers, introducing yourself to your supervisor’s significant other (if he or she is in attendance), and making connections with your immediate team.

If you are a young professional, a social function can be a great forum to politely introduce yourself to upper management and get to know the more-seasoned engineers on staff. It may even help you find a mentor within your organization.

Attending a holiday party or happy hour does not require you to consume alcohol. Although many of your coworkers may be drinking, don’t skip an event just because you don’t drink — your absence will be noted. You can still generate lively discussion and enjoy yourself with a soda or water in-hand. If some of your colleagues get a little too tipsy and you feel uncomfortable, it is okay to leave early.

Before you go, the following simple guidelines to ensure you are socializing with style.

Finish your work first

If you are running behind on a major deadline, or you have not completed your assigned tasks for the day, hold off on attending an office happy hour. It’s better to arrive an hour late — or miss out entirely — than neglect your responsibilities.

Dress to impress

Although the social outing may take place after work hours, make sure you are dressed professionally. Look your best — but keep your outfit tasteful and appropriate for the event.

Make a plan

Before the party, think of a few smart conversation starters. Stay up-to-date on community events, new developments in your industry, or a popular television show — all of these topics make great icebreakers. If you will be drinking, decide beforehand how much you want to drink and how you will get home. If you have to work the next day, plan to leave the event at a reasonable time and make sure you stick to your plan.

Work the room and make connections

Use the event as an opportunity to mingle and network with all of your coworkers — not just your immediate team members. Strike up conversations with people from different departments. Be congenial and open up about your hobbies and interests, but avoid talking only about yourself or about work. Ask your colleagues about life outside the office — appropriate questions include: “What are your holiday plans?” and “How are your children doing?” Strive to keep the conversation polite and positive.

Don’t overshare

Although personal conversations are not off-limits, don’t bring your personal baggage to the party. Socializing with your coworkers is vastly different from getting together with your friends — at any work function, your professional reputation is on the line. Think before you speak, use your best judgment, and don’t share anything that you wouldn’t want all of your coworkers to know.

Pace yourself

If you choose to drink, you should eat a snack before you arrive at the happy hour, or be sure to partake of the hors d’oeuvres that are served at the start of the event. Never drink on an empty stomach. Have a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage to stay hydrated and pace yourself. If you know that you can’t handle your liquor, or if you have had adverse reactions in the past, abstain from all alcohol. You are not in college anymore — nobody will mind if you don’t drink, just as nobody will praise you for downing the most beer. And remember, even if your supervisor or coworkers are drinking heavily, that doesn’t give you permission to do the same. Drink in moderation.

Avoid office gossip

Although it can be difficult, refrain from participating in — or initiating — office gossip. This isn’t the time or place to voice complaints about your boss or company policies. In a bar setting, it’s easy for others to catch snippets of your conversation. You don’t want the wrong person to overhear you trash talking your program manager.

Be respectful of office boundaries

At all times, view the holiday party or happy hour as a relaxed business meeting. Act as though you are still in an office setting and that the usual HR rules still apply. Even though you may be sharing a glass of wine (or two) with your boss, remain professional and treat him or her as you would in the workplace. Show your ability to make good decisions by maintaining proper decorum.

Know your limits

Make your exit at an appropriate time and be sure to thank whoever organized the outing while saying your goodbyes. If you imbibe too much and begin to feel tipsy, leave. It’s better to miss out on the end of the party than to embarrass yourself. Being drunk at a work event will reflect negatively on your professional persona.

Most importantly, have fun! (But not too much fun.)