The annual office holiday party is more "office" than "party". Your career needs you to act accordingly.
We've all heard about the person who got so drunk at the office party that they groped a co-worker, told off the boss, and passed out under the buffet table. Monday morning they couldn't remember what happened, but they still had to try to work with those people.
You may have seen it happen. You may even have been the unfortunate who did it. Either way, you probably know what happened to that person. They were either fired outright or shut out until they resigned. Very few companies tolerate that kind of behavior. Your attempt at being the "life of the party" may cost you your job.
It may also cost you your life, or at least your freedom. If you drive drunk, you may kill yourself or someone else. While some companies arrange for taxis or hotel rooms for employees who over indulge, the final responsibility ultimately rests with you.
Office Party Etiquette
Remember that the annual office holiday party is still a business function. It is wrapped in a social context, but it's still a business function. Many other business events have a social context, such as taking the client to lunch or attending the charity dinner to receive the award for the company. Those who observe your behavior at the office holiday party will remember it when they consider you for other business social events. The good news is it works both ways.
I'm not suggesting that your bosses are specifically watching your every move at an event like this. Obviously they can't watch everyone all the time. Besides, they are trying to enjoy the party and to use it for their own purposes. However, rest assured your behavior will be observed by someone whose opinion can impact your job.
A lot of resources focus on what not to do at the office holiday party. One is Madeleine Kane's Office Party Follies. There are also great "Top Ten" lists for the office holiday party. For example, "10 no-no's to avoid this holiday season".
Using it to your advantage
The good news is that you can just as easily use the annual office holiday party to advance your career as you can to cripple it. It is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to handle business situations of a social nature, something that is required of senior executives. It is an opportunity for you to meet the CEO and other senior executives of your company that you might not have met before, or have seldom had the opportunity to speak with. Finally, it is an opportunity for you to let your coworkers know how much you appreciate their support and assistance during the year.
You don't have to spend all night at the event, but you do have to attend. Plan to arrive soon after the event is scheduled to start. Everyone will still be 'fresh'. They won't have repeated the same greeting and small talk several dozen or hundreds of times yet.
Find your host, the boss. Thank him or her and take advantage of the opportunity to chat, but don't monopolize your host. Others will want to make their greetings too. Don't try too hard to make a good impression and end up making the wrong impression.
Mingle. Introduce yourself to someone you don't know. It may turn out to be someone who can help you on that next project. Or just someone who turns out to be an interesting person. Not the mingling type? Then find someone who looks as miserable as you feel and speak to them. You'll both enjoy the evening more.
If you haven't eaten yet (came straight from the office, did you?) go ahead and sample a few items from the buffet. Be sure to select things you can eat neatly, with one hand, while standing up. Stay away from salty or greasy foods that make you want to drink more. Choose foods high in starch and protein that will help slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.
Watch what you drink. Keep reminding yourself that this is a business event first and a party second. I drink Vodka Tonics, but at the holiday party, I have them without the vodka. No one knows but me. After all, there's plenty of time to drink after the party. I keep my glass in my left hand so when I shake hands with someone, my hand isn't wet or cold.
Take advantage of the party atmosphere. Seek out the individuals who can influence your career. Do your homework ahead of time so you can speak with them about their division's newest release, or their favorite sports team, or the play you saw last week. You can talk business, but don't "talk shop". After an appropriate interval, excuse yourself and move on.
When you have spoken to all or most of the bosses, coworkers, and new people you planned to, gracefully leave. As you leave, thank your host for the enjoyable evening.
One last thing. If you made any verbal commitments to any of the people at the holiday party, make sure to follow up on them. Try to write them down as soon as you get home so you don't forget.