When Work Involves Socializing

Knowing What's Appropriate... and What's Not

Drink in moderation at office parties.

© iStockphoto/inkastudio

Imagine that it's your company's annual holiday party. The lighting is soft, the music is loud, and everyone is having a good time. However, a few of your team members are having a little TOO much fun. Their group is the loudest in the room, and they've all had more than a few drinks.

One person on your team is especially drunk – he's walking unsteadily around the room, making rude and inappropriate jokes, and offending almost everyone he comes near. Before tonight, you had been secretly considering him for a promotion. But now, after seeing his behavior, you're thinking about taking him off your list. After all, if he can't handle himself at a holiday party, could he handle the promotion? You think not.

Have you ever watched others behave inappropriately at company functions– or, perhaps, have you ever done something you wish you hadn't?

Business socializing – with your colleagues, clients, or boss – has different rules from socializing with friends and family. Many people, however, treat the two situations in the same way. Not only is this a mistake, but it can lead to negative consequences for your career.

In this article, we review a few of the most common business socializing situations, and offer some tips to help you have a good time with ease and confidence.

Socializing with Clients

Most social situations with clients include a meal. The traditional 'business lunch' is a way to develop relationships, win future contracts, and gain referrals. But it takes strategy and planning for your meeting to be successful.

  • Choose the location carefully. Many people choose a place randomly, but this can be a big mistake. If the restaurant is especially noisy, or if your clients have to drive a long way, then they're not going to be impressed. Select a location that's close to your client, has easy parking, and offers a quiet atmosphere. Also, choose a restaurant where the food and service are consistently good.
  • Make your clients comfortable. It's important for your clients to feel at ease from the beginning, so make sure they know who's paying the bill. If you're the host and you issued the invitation, then you should pay. To avoid confusion, tell your clients up front that they're your guests.

    Also, tell the clients what you plan to order before the waiter or waitress returns to the table. Your guests may feel uncomfortable if they order an expensive steak, and you choose only salad and soup.

  • Spend appropriately. Remember that your boss will probably review how much you spend on the client – and compare it with how much you can reasonably expect to gain from developing the relationship.

    For instance, if your clients have a lot of potential business for you, taking them to an expensive restaurant for dinner would be appropriate, because your rate of return could be high. However, if the clients can potentially give you only one or two small contracts, then a moderate lunch might be more suitable.

    A general rule is to make sure that the amount you spend on clients is proportional to what you expect to earn from socializing with them.

Socializing with Your Boss

This has an entirely different set of challenges. After-work socializing with your boss can be a great way to get some one-to-one time in a relaxed environment. On the other hand, it's easy to go from being friendly… to being too friendly. If that's the case, how do you know the difference?

  • Remember that this is business. Spending time with your boss is always about work. No matter how well the two of you get along, he or she is still your boss. Don't forget the lines of authority, or expect special treatment.
  • Relax... but not too much. This might be your boss's chance to get to know you better in order to give you a promotion or additional responsibilities. Be yourself, but don't relax so much that you say or do something you'll regret tomorrow. Dress appropriately, and be respectful.
  • Don't have unreasonable expectations. Just because the two of you have a great time playing golf, this doesn't mean you will automatically get the promotion you want. If you think about it, would you really continue to respect your boss if his judgment could be influenced so easily? And don't put your boss in an embarrassing position by asking for a raise or promotion while you're socializing. Talking about work is fine (especially if your boss is the one to bring it up), but leave such requests for an appropriate time at the office.

Socializing with Co-workers

This is where people tend to make their biggest mistakes. Socializing with co-workers is definitely easier than with clients or your boss, so some people aren't cautious enough – and they get a little too noisy or drunk at company events. You may feel more comfortable with your co-workers, but this doesn't mean you can let go of all self-control. You still have to maintain your reputation and keep the respect of others.

  • Keep your conversation appropriate. Don't tell jokes at a party that you would never tell in the office. Offending your team members may make them uncomfortable, and could hurt their feelings. And that's something they may not forget anytime soon.
  • Limit your alcohol. Quite simply, don't drink too much. Walking around in an unsteady manner while laughing loudly will definitely get you noticed – but probably not in the positive way you'd like. Think of how unappealing other co-workers are when they're drunk. This should be enough to keep you away from the bar.

    Business etiquette experts recommend eating something before you go to an event. You never know how much food will be served, and you don't want to be the only one piling a lot of food onto your plate. And, of course, eating beforehand will help stop that first drink from affecting you as much.

  • Discuss nonwork topics. Aim to keep the conversation away from business. Get to know your team – ask them about their hobbies, families, and interests. Talking about the report you just wrote, or discussing your recent promotion, can be not only boring, but also annoying.
  • Spend time with new people. Company events are a way to get to know colleagues and bond as a group. But resist the temptation to talk with only your regular circle of co-workers. Move around and get to know people from other departments. Chances are high that your boss is watching – so if you're seen with several different people, this could reflect positively on your abilities as a communicator.

Socializing at Conferences

Conferences are a wonderful way to make valuable contacts. This is why being on your best behavior is so vital.

  • Keep your drink or plate in your left hand. This frees your right hand to shake hands as you meet new people. Plus, your hand won't be cold or wet because you were just holding a glass, which can leave a bad impression.
  • Don't be the first to arrive, or the last to leave. It's usually best to leave while the event is still going strong. If you're not sure when to go home, watch an executive you admire. When she leaves, follow her example.
  • Be a listener, not a talker. Most people feel special when someone really listens to what they say. If you're the one doing all the talking, people may perceive you as selfish and self-centered. So listen first, and talk second.

For more tips and techniques on making conversation, see our Book Insight on How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Planning an Event

If you're in charge of planning an event with clients or team members, choose an activity that everyone will enjoy.

For instance, if you love hiking and climbing, that doesn't mean the entire office would be happy to spend a day outdoors. And your passion for classical music doesn't mean that your clients would enjoy the opera.

Choose something you think your clients or co-workers would love – and make sure you don't put people in a situation where they might feel uncomfortable. Select the setting and location with care, and remember your overall goals. If the event is meant to strengthen ties within a department, then arrange an outing that will allow people to get to know one another. If you're attempting to win a key contract from a client, then choose an activity and place that will allow you to talk seriously.

Planning an event can present an entirely new set of challenges. If you'd like more information, see Planning a Workshop: Organizing and Running a Successful Event  .

Key Points

Business socializing has its own set of rules and practices that are far different from socializing with friends and family. It's important to understand that no matter what you're doing, or with whom you're doing it, attending corporate events is still part of your work life. A good rule is not to do anything that you wouldn't do at the office during a regular work day. And use moderation in drinking, eating, and even talking.

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Comments (6)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Wolf you certainly did bring a smile to my face now! Okay...we look forward to hearing from you after Friday...
    Seriously though - drinking & driving is a huge problem here in South Africa; it is the norm for people to get drunk and get behind the steering wheel of a car... It is truly frightening! And the thing is, so many children grow up seeing that example.

    You pose an interesting question and I would like to hear what the others have to say about it: So when does resisting peer pressure turn into being seen as the odd one out? I think that resisting peer pressure with something like getting drunk, shows that you have strong values, no matter where you are or what the occasion is - and that may indeed cause you to be the odd one out from time to time.

  • wolf wrote Over a month ago
    Very interesting topic! And my, have I seen many people breaking the rules during the last couple of years!

    I'm currently based in Sweden where the position towards alcohol is somewhat double, to say the least. While you can only purchase beverages containing more than 3.5% alcohol in state-owned stores and bars/restaurants with the appropriate license, getting drunk at parties and after work sessions seems to be a way of life for many.

    The one positive thing is that I've never seen any of my colleagues drive home after a heavy drinking session, but seeing some of them making a complete fool out of themselves, being unable to stand unaided, getting a little too close for comfort, or even wander off to engage in intimate rendez-vous (I'm not kidding!), has confirmed me in my resolve to stay in control of myself at all time. I do drink, but I alternate alcoholic with non-alcoholic beverages and keep a tag on how I feel at all times. Contrary to what some people think, I can have a marvelous time without getting plastered.

    But I just don't understand how people can turn up at work the following day and have a normal conversation with someone they've insulted or they've been overly close with, while they're both married and don't intend on anything more!?! Having my intoxicated boss cry on my shoulder during his goodbye party was another experience I wouldn't wish upon anyone. Today, he's a great friend, but even though he didn't remember anything the next day, I still do!

    On a different note, I have wondered at times whether being in control is actually always good for your career. "We've never seen YOU drunk yet!" is something I've heard from several bosses and colleagues and it certainly had an accusatory ring to it... So when does resisting peer pressure turn into being seen as the odd one out?

    Party with colleagues coming up on Friday; might have some more stories after that!

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Great reminder, at this time of year. The key message for me was 'remember this is business' because whether in a business environment or social environment, your work colleagues will be seeing you in a professional light.

    Save the party antics for when you are amongst your friends!

    Lulu, your story about the Managing Director seeing employees drunken managers drive off reminded me of when I first started my career and drink driving wasn't a concern ... until one year a colleague was killed after a party. That literally sobered people up at subsequent gatherings!

    Remember, work is work regardless of where it is located!

    Here is to having a fun yet safe business and social festivities during this holiday season and in all seasons.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    I had to smile Lulu - I could almost see them running!

  • lulu wrote Over a month ago
    This is such a good topic.... like some of you, I have had some awful experiences with Christmas functions - observing drunken behaviour and where that leads to. I have been hit on by the boss, watched a colleague humiliated because he was so drunk, and many years ago watched very drunk Managers get into their cars and see the Managing Director smiling at them. I was only a clerk then, but will never forget it!

    Nowadays things have changed. Most of the Christmas parties now are much better organised, people don't drink as much because many do have to drive and people just have fun without being silly.

    I just want to share a funny story - when I was 16, I was working during the holidays for my father's company as I was saving up money for the next year when I was going to upstate New York as an Exchange Student. At the Christmas party, these young guys started chatting me up. That was until another staff member informed them that I was the boss' daughter....... then they high tailed it away never to be seen again

    There was no way they were going to chat up the boss' daughter!!

    It was really funny.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    This article is so important! I've heard of more than one instance where a person had to go to his colleagues the day after the party and apologise for his/her behaviour... Not a good place to be at. I get tipsy very easily and don't drink much, even though I love a good red wine. At a work/business function, I don't consume any alcohol, but I usually allow the host/hostess to pour me half a glass of wine - that way I look more sociable and no-one bugs me about not drinking.


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