How to survive the office Christmas party

Dr James Gioutlou dislikes office Christmas parties. So much so that when the Melbourne-based dentist became the boss, he repurposed the traditional pre-Christmas knees-up into a daytime, alcohol-free activity. In mid-January.

Dr Gioutlou is no Scrooge. He just finds the annual work gathering excruciating. Neither his steady hand in the surgery, nor a gentle bedside manner are an inoculation against pre-party jitters.

"In my own domain I'm very confident, but Christmas parties can be awkward," Dr Gioutlou says. "It's the situation of not being in control, of being introduced to new people, the routine chitter-chatter."

Annual dread

He is not alone. Many of the most professionally competent and confident people dread office parties, says Brisbane psychologist Dr Judith Locke.

'Tis the season for social anxiety.

"The thing is to know that it is no different to a work day. No different to anything encountered in the hallway. Probably a more lengthy hallway with a few more pitfalls," Dr Locke says.

You booze, you lose

The big mistake is when people drink too much, either to calm their nerves or from a feeling there's an expectation to cut loose. "Then they're potentially coming into that space with past grudges and opinions about people in the workplace. Alcohol exacerbates any issues," she says.

Too many drinks or booze-fuelled antics can loosen tongues in career-damaging fashion, warns etiquette expert Amberlie Cameron-Smith.

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"That's the danger of the open bar. I've had people who've been talked about for years and years," says Cameron-Smith, a trainer at Melbourne's Suzan Johnston finishing school.

"There was a manager and receptionist out in front of the club getting it on, really tanked, and they were the talk of the workplace literally for years.

"Relationships have broken up because of what's happened at Christmas parties. There was a lady who danced on a table and fell off and injured herself, legs in the air. That's not good."

Rise above it all

Doubly so if you are the boss. "You're going to have to see people and work with these people next year, and possibly the next day. If you're the boss, err on the side of understatement," Cameron-Smith says.

"There's no one who's going to reprimand you because of your behaviour at the Christmas party, but you've got to set the example.

"I've seen executives having to talk to staff members about being too touchy-feely, but they'd been doing it themselves."

Dr Locke says the key to surviving the office party is to set a reasonable departure time and stick to it. Call it the Cinderella attitude.

"Lower your expectations. The first two hours typically go great. All the problems happen late," she says.

"A short game is a good game. The alcohol, the smorgasbord, ceases to be value for money at a certain point.

"It seems a shame to lose all that dignity you've gained throughout the year with one magnum. And then see it later on Facebook. Everything is so much more public now."

The late, dry option

Dr Gioutlou well recalls the yuletide "booze fest" of his earlier days working in a corporate environment, "where board members hit on interns". At his Murrumbeena practice, "I've taken the booze out of it", he says.

"We have a nice lunch somewhere, often in January when it's cheaper. We still have a bit of a laugh and poke fun at everyone. But in these days of litigation, you've got to cover every base possible. As an employer I have a moral and legal obligation to protect my staff."

Instead of imbibing to steady the nerves, Dr Locke suggests taking the approach of being more interested in other people than they are in you. Asking about their children usually works.

"Essentially people are egotistical, so no one actually does care if you have on the wrong shoes," she says.

"Be kind to others and that will make you feel better about yourself."

Cameron-Smith advises against using the Christmas party as a chance to assert career aspirations. "Don't approach someone and say 'any jobs in your department?'. Don't push the issue of promotion. Just be very pleasant. They'll see you've conducted yourself well and then it will be 'he's lovely; I remember him from the Christmas party'. It will be a segue."

Take the opportunity to meet people in other departments or other floors — the ones you never mormally meet face-to-face. Be appropriately dressed, guided by the company invitation's dress code information. When in doubt, ask HR or even check with the venue.

"But feel free to allow your personal style to show by wearing more colour or having a more relaxed hairstyle," says stylist Bronwyn Fraser.

Men should avoid thongs, even at barbecues, and women revealing clothing. "And don't overdress," advises Fraser.

"It's not the time to make a big fashion statement or be the one who looks completely out of place, as though you're headed to another function."

As well you might be. Says Dr Locke: "If you have a buzz when you leave, go to a party with your own friendship group. They know you and love you at your worst."

And, presumably, are less likely to share the incriminating photos on Facebook.

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