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Be on Your Best Holiday Behavior

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Michelle and her husband, Dan, planned to attend her company’s holiday party. It was her first year attending, and they were looking forward to making the best impression. Unfortunately, they made some serious mistakes. First, they forgot to RSVP to the party. Michelle’s regional manager, Stephen, the host, was forced to bring in additional seating to accommodate them. In addition, Michelle and Dan brought their hosts a gift of wine; however, they didn’t realize that Stephen and his wife abstained due to their religious beliefs. By the end of the evening, Dan had had too much to drink, and accidentally spilled red wine on the carpet. Instead of getting off on the right foot, these mistakes damaged Michelle’s reputation back at the office.

The key to success when attending any office function, event, or party is preparation and planning. This may be the ideal opportunity to meet someone who can influence your career, so take advantage. Here are some etiquette guidelines to follow:

Attending office parties: Yes, you should attend. At least make an appearance and find the host or hostess as soon as possible to extend your thanks for the invitation. Don't make an obvious exit, but try and work the room as much as possible before you leave. Never tell anyone you're leaving because you have another party to attend. It will give the impression the other party is better and you are only here because you need to make an appearance.



The best rule for attending is to arrive on time or within 15 minutes of the designated start time. Your host may have announcements or food presentations scheduled throughout the evening, which would be geared around the starting and ending time of the event. You don't have to be the first to arrive, and you don't want to be the last to leave. Gauge your time to fit the activities and the size of the crowd. If the crowd is larger, it is much easier to depart without notice. But if it is an intimate dinner or party, you may be required to remain for most of the evening.

Don't talk only about business: If you are at a neighbor's home for their annual pool soiree, don't come with a car full of portfolios or brochures. Parties are networking opportunities, so leave it at that. You can approach someone to set up a future meeting and exchange business cards, but leave the brochures and proposals at the office. Before the party, prepare by reading the newspaper or watching the news. Be familiar with the events calendar of your city. You'll always have something to talk about if you stay "in the know." If you're on the shy side, just remember to ask questions. People love to answer questions about their families, work, hobbies, etc.

Food and alcohol: When you attend a function in a person's home or even in a restaurant as a guest, the food may be free, but it's not your last meal. Drink and eat moderately. Consuming food and drink from the time you arrive until you leave may make it the last time you are invited. You can partake in both, but the key is moderation. Your time should be spent mingling with guests. It can be difficult to carry on a conversation with a prospective client or the president of your company when you have a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other. Mingle and then ask a client or the person you just met to join you for a drink or some food.

Buffet: When people think of buffets, they think of all the food they can possibly eat. Keep in mind you can go back again, and don't stack your plate so high you need help. If the entire table is going through the buffet line, try to start at the same time. When at least two or three people have returned to the table, you can begin eating. It is not necessary to wait for the entire table to return. When you are ready to return to the buffet, leave your plate on the table so the wait staff will take it away. Always start with a clean plate each time you return for more food.

If you are with a client who does not want dessert, try and bring the dessert back with you when you go for your entrée. However, if you know the client enjoys dessert, then ask the client at the end of the meal if he or she would like coffee and dessert. You can order the coffee first and then return to the buffet for one or two desserts.

Gifts for parties: You should always bring a gift when invited to someone's home for the holidays, or at any other time of the year. The exception to this rule is when you have a get- together every week or month. Bring something that you know the host and hostess would enjoy. If you are not familiar with their home or décor, then stay on the safe side with a bottle of wine, candles, or a small, non-personal gift. If you do present them with wine, make sure they drink alcohol, and don't expect them to open the bottle of wine immediately. Food is always good to either complement their presentation or to be enjoyed after the party. Avoid bringing flowers the night of the party because it might require the hosts stopping to place them in a vase, or it may interfere with their selection of decoration. Send flowers the following day.

Gift giving at the office: The holidays can be tricky with gift giving and various celebrations and religious beliefs. Whom do you give a gift, how much do you spend, and what happens if you receive a gift and do not have one in return?
  1. If you are exchanging gifts in the office with all but a few, avoid exchanging them at the office. Instead, meet after work, and do not talk about your gifts the next day in the office.
  2. Should you give your boss a gift? Not necessarily. That can become a contest of who gave what and how much did they spend. The boss can give gifts to the employees, but it is not necessary to reciprocate. A nice card showing your appreciation is always welcome, as is giving something homemade, such as cookies or artwork. Another nice gesture is getting your co-workers together on a gift.
  3. Be respectful of traditions and religious beliefs. This does not mean you have to exclude people from holiday parties and gift giving, but give them the option to participate. Office festivities and holiday cards should state "Happy Holidays," "Holiday Greetings," or "The Best for the Season."
  4. Always personalize your holiday cards. If your company name is embossed or printed at the bottom of the card, a signed name or names should still apply. If possible, handwrite the address instead of using labels, and use holiday stamps, instead of the meter.
  5. Have a few gifts in reserve. A gift certificate to the local bookstore could come in handy; a few candles in gift bags could save you an embarrassing moment. If you receive a gift with nothing to give in exchange, do not apologize for not having a gift; just be extremely appreciative and follow-up with a nice thank-you note.
Client gift giving: Be careful in your gift giving to clients. Your intention should be a gift they will enjoy and appreciate, not a lavish or outrageous gift that will "outdo" the competition. The gift should be sent to the office and should be business appropriate. Check with the client's assistant for their likes and dislikes. Certificates to a nice restaurant or bookstore, or their favorite shop, are very appropriate and enjoyable. If more than one person from your office is sending this customer a gift, make sure you check before sending duplicate gifts.

Thank-you notes: When you receive a gift or are invited to a party, a thank-you note should be sent the next day, or at least within a week. The handwritten note only needs to be a few lines thanking them for the specific gift or invitation. Do not include a company brochure or any other pieces of printed material. It is a thank-you note and not a ploy to get more business.

Always be on your best behavior, no matter what the situation. By remembering the proper ways to dress and socialize, you may be doing more than just building your contacts. You could be making some of the most important connections of your career at the next event or party you attend!

About the Author

Colleen A. Rickenbacher is a business etiquette expert and the author of Be on Your Best Business Behavior and the forthcoming Be on Your Best Cultural Behavior. She helps clients stand out by improving manners, image, and communication skills. With her past experience in event planning, as well as her skills in etiquette, Colleen helps companies such as FedEx, Microsoft, and Marriott polish their images for increased profits. For information on her speaking, training, or books, visit www.colleenrickenbacher.com or call 214-341-1677.
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