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Don't embarrass yourself at the company party

'Tis the season NOT to make a jerk out of yourself in front of your co-workers.

Careful what you do, careful what you say, beware the company Christmas party, it'll blow your raise away -- "Business Blues" by Marketing Mike and the Suits

Remember the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine entertains her fellow employees at the company holiday party by drinking a few too many cocktails and then dancing in a way only Elaine can? Or what about the episode of Married ... With Children when Marcie gets wasted at the bank's Christmas party and ends up sitting upon the copy machine, making copies of her behind?

It's funny material for a sitcom, but even funnier when it happens in real life -- if you're an observer, not the observee. But if you're the one dancing with the lampshade over your head, come time to face the boss and the company rumor mill Monday morning, the joke is on you.

One incident at the company party "will be talked about for the rest of the year, and there is very little way to erase it," says Stephen Viscusi of On the Job, a nationally syndicated radio show based in New York City.

He says his show gets a lot of calls around the holidays with listeners concerned about their behavior during their company's holiday party. Viscusi suggests that you don't misinterpret the casualness of the party, because, all too often, people look at the annual party as an excuse to really get wild and crazy.

A Florida woman, who has asked that her name not be revealed, got tipsy, stuffed a huge balloon under her dress and bellowed Christmas carols while stretching out on the piano. "The pictures turned out great, but have since been destroyed," she says.

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"Show them that you know how to let your hair down," Viscusi says, "but the boss is still the boss." If you aren't careful, "You may end up with a pink slip on your desk Monday."

Here are some tips from Stephen Viscusi before you head out to the party:
Limit your alcohol. Set a limit before you go and stick to it.
Wear appropriate clothes. Don't show up in fishnet stockings if you work in a conservative office.
Know when it's time to leave. The longer you are there, the better chance you have to foul up.

He says that Gen Xers have a particular problem with this situation. They are faced with their first company Christmas parties and tend to see it as a more relaxed setting. This is certainly not a kegger in the dorm, so leave the beer bong at home and approach the party as you would a dinner with a client, Viscusi adds. Don't forget that you are continually making an impression even if the open bar is calling your name.

Jeff Fox of W. Palm Beach, Fla., encountered a problem at his annual Christmas party. However, it wasn't Jeff's behavior that caused the disruption but rather his date. The party was held at an upscale restaurant and before dinner, the group met in the bar. His date, who is a big talker anyway, had a bit too much champagne and ended up getting really loud and making 'off-color' jokes. Jeff was humiliated and had to face the wrath of the office the next day.

"I knew I had to be tortured," he recounts. "It's not something that is forgotten." One co-worker shook his hand and others made continuous comments about his dinner guest. The next year, Jeff went to the party alone.

It's funny how the almighty drink can be the root of all evil. It may not only embarrass you, but it can also bring out the little demon you keep inside that holds all the anger you have against your boss.

Bob Jones*, a national sales manager from Indianapolis, got drunk and proceeded to corner his boss to tell him all of the things his direct reports were doing wrong and if he was the boss, he wouldn't allow it to happen. This incident was one of the reasons he was fired later.

To combat their employees from taking it too far at the holiday party, Parvaneah Merat marketing director at a company in California says her company maintains a fun atmosphere in the office on a daily basis. She says their office parties have been without embarrassing incident -- funny, she sounded disappointed that she didn't have a juicy story to share.

"It is still a business function. As much as you may want to get carried away, you don't want to do anything that would not be condoned in the office," adds Merat.

Even if you don't get fired for dancing around with the lampshade on your head or flirting with your boss's wife, you may have damaged your reputation as a professional. Come time to receive promotions or holiday bonuses, you could find yourself coming up empty simply because the whiskey made you do it.

"We don't see anything wrong with drinking, but you shouldn't take a bath in it," says Roger Brashears, spokesman for Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn.

You'd think they'd have a huge holiday party in Lynchburg, but it is actually in a dry county, so they can't even sell alcohol there! To celebrate the season, each department has smaller parties in someone's home or at a local restaurant.

"We drink, but we don't do it in front of each other," he says. If someone got a little tipsy at a party, "their buddy would pull them aside and say something to them. We're like a family here."

That is actually a great idea. You must have friends at your company -- if not, you may want to rethink your job. Play watchdog for each other. If you are getting a little loud or start showing your ass, your friend call pull you aside and get you some coffee. And you can return the favor, if need be. Of course this plan of action puts a damper on sitting around and doing shots of tequila, but that's probably a good thing.

If you already did the damage, how do you redeem yourself? Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America's No. 1 Career Coach, explains you'd be best to "make apologies and get over it. Don't let it define you. Just get back to doing a great job."

If your date was the problem, you are still responsible for his or her actions. You chose to bring that person and their behavior reflects upon you, according to Fortgang. She suggests that you apologize and assure everyone it won't happen again.

If your co-workers continue to pick on your snafu, Fortgang suggests that you just laugh it off. If the company bullies know they can get a rise out of you, they will continue, so you are best to just ask them to drop it.

So come time to join around the company egg nog, make a point to have a good time, but maintain your dignity, because if you don't you may end up standing outside a KMart ringing a bell for a living.

*Name has been changed. Like you would 'fess up to something like this.

-- Updated: Dec. 1, 2003

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See Also
The 5 worst mistakes to make at work -- and how to recover
You screwed up at work ... now what?
Partying down so you can move up
Financial advice glossary
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