Outside the office, it’s not work

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a chapter from Jane Miller’s book, “Sleep Your Way to the Top (and Other Myths About Business Success)”, which is being published by FG Press in May 2014.)

Myth: Outside the office, it’s not work. 

Truth: That sounds right.  Especially after that third shot of tequila.

So how do you play it? Is a work party considered work?

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes.

Early in my career, I knew someone in marketing who was, in fact, the poster child for life of the party.  She could drink, dance and outlast all of us. She was one of the most fun people around.  In a party of her peers from marketing, she fit in beautifully.  Everyone was about the same age and single, making after-work gatherings pretty much an extension of college life.  Although there was a high level of friskiness all around, everyone was on the same page.  Totally appropriate.

But then she got transferred into a field sales job and the first big celebratory party involved plenty of alcohol, dancing and socializing.  The difference?  The crowd was not the same post-college group.  They were forty-year old-plus sales managers (all men) who were not used to having women around the social scene.  Married and with the company for quite a while, they were accustomed to going to strip clubs together, not socializing with friendly, female co-workers.  So, when this vibrant young thing showed up and started sitting on some of the guys’ laps, well, it was quite a scene.  Totally inappropriate.

How easy would it be for the guy whose lap she shared to think she was, you know, asking for it?  Sexual harassment is complicated and has many nuances.  But in this situation, the important ramification was that her behavior marginalized her very capable skills.  People walked away thinking she was a party girl, not the talented junior executive she was.  After this party, it was difficult for her to have business credibility when she was dealing with these same guys during their day jobs.

The good news is that she got some counsel from someone who cared about her career and told her how her actions were being perceived.  She took the advice seriously and quickly course-corrected.  She developed a plan to show off her business skills to this same group of managers while backing off the extreme party girl persona.  She was still able to have fun, but she was just more measured about it.

 Unfortunately, because of that one night, she had to work hard to change an incorrect perception.  Energy that could have been used in other ways.  But she successfully changed the perception and her climb up the ladder moved unhindered from that point.

So, what do you need to remember as you slip on the LBD and head out to the Holiday Party?

  1. What you do in this environment is an extension of your day job.  People will notice how you interact with others and how you handle yourself.
  1. Know the purpose of the event.  Informal cocktails after work with a group of peers is different than a big conference where the CEO is there.  You can be flirtier, flittier and more fun at after-work cocktails than you can be when representing the company at a big event.
  1. Learn from someone you admire.  Every company has a different culture, if you’re new, observe others, especially people who are well-respected and have made it to the top.  BTW, don’t expect yourself to always know everything—that is why it is great to be a voyeur at your first few work events!
  1. Control your alcohol level.  If you can normally drink three glasses of wine before you tell your life story, stop at two and drink water in between.
  2. Have fun. Be social.  Share things that help people get to know you.  Are you an athlete, a cook?  Do you have pets? What do you like to do? The best workplaces create an environment where people like each other outside of work.