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Potential Leaders: Be Nice, Not Naughty at the Holiday Office Party

 -  12/9/11

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‘Tis the season to be jolly, which means the annual holiday office party is right around the corner.

While these work-related social functions are meant for employees to cut loose and engage with co-workers in a fun and social setting, they can also serve as a breeding ground for a career disaster. CLOs can help prevent such missteps by their organizations’ potential leaders by providing guidance on out-of-office business comportment.

According to an October survey released by the Caron Treatment Centers, a nonprofit provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment, 52 percent of office holiday party attendees have witnessed some sort of inappropriate behavior due to too much alcohol consumption.

Thirty percent of the survey respondents said they’ve witnessed someone flirt with a co-worker or supervisor at a holiday office party, and 28 percent said they’ve seen an over-served co-worker drive drunk. Of the 1,034 survey respondents, 26 percent said a colleague or supervisor had shared personal or inappropriate details about themselves at a work-related social outing.

Meanwhile, widespread social media use has the potential to increase the scope of tactless office party behavior. Smartphone cameras can easily capture inappropriate behavior in real time and post it online — and many who attend office holiday parties are putting the technology to good use. More than half of the respondents to the Caron survey said they’ve seen professional repercussions for co-workers when such information became public through social networks.

“From a business standpoint, the most important part of the [holiday] party is your opportunity to develop social capital,” said Carol Kinsey Goman, executive coach and author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help — or Hurt — How You Lead.

According to Goman, social capital — the ability to make personal connections with business partners or stakeholders — is more valuable in today’s business climate than the traditional notion of human capital — the personal intellect or knowledge an employee brings to an organization. But time and time again, many high-potential leaders fail to recognize this, in turn treating the holiday office party as a booze-fest or night out on the town.

“It’s a business office party,” Goman said. “It’s not you and your girlfriends or you and your guy friends dressing up as sexy as you can and hitting the bars.”

But inappropriate behavior at such parties can be harder to spot than attire and alcohol consumption. Some inappropriate communication, Goman said, is much more subtle and can be entirely nonverbal. Something as simple as a brief touch or lean can invoke the impression of attraction or dislike among partygoers.

Leaning, or conversation space, is another nonverbal cue that could send signals during cocktail conversation. Goman said people typically feel most comfortable when 18 inches of space is between two people conversing.

Once the 18 inches is impeded — whether intentional or not — others may start to get the wrong signal. “When you get into that 18-inch space without being invited in,” Goman said, “then people will start to have very negative reactions.”

By the same token, Goman said, there are also many intentional choices involving a person’s body language that can be put to good use at the holiday office gathering. Leaders who take these practices to heart can create a whole new professional persona, she said.

“A great handshake is a fabulous party skill that a lot of people still haven’t mastered,” Goman said, adding that eye contact is the most important component to a great handshake.

In the end, however, the holiday office party isn’t meant to trigger anxiety or apprehension. Nor should it force high-potential employees to strive for superbly coordinated nonverbal gestures. Yet the opportunity to make an impression is rich, Goman said, and leaders who let some of the easy-to-control behavioral elements get out of hand will be missing out.

“[The holiday office party] is a wonderful way to get to know someone on another level,” Goman said. “So when you need to work with them in the future, you’ve made a bond on another level that goes beyond strictly business.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at