The invitations are out. The trimmings are up, and workers everywhere are starting to sweat. It's beginning to look a lot like the annual holiday party.
"Especially for more junior people, the office holiday party is a rare opportunity to be in a room with immediate supervisors and the big boss," says Christine Jahnke, author of The Well-Spoken Woman and a speech coach who's worked with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. "You can leverage it, or you can really blow it."
Experts agree that workplace bashes are ideal for raising your visibility and getting on the radar of company influencers. But climbers beware: If mishandled, the spotlight can burn. According to a survey conducted by human resources firm Adecco last year, 40% of workers have witnessed or committed a holiday-party indiscretion, which caused a shocking 14% to lose their jobs.
This year, here's how to walk away feeling jolly—rather than sorry.
Use It: "This is your chance to shine," says Washington, D.C.-based personal stylist Tara Luizzi, who advises using your holiday style to display your personality in a still-sophisticated, elegant way. "The most important thing is to understand your audience and venue." Note the size and formality of the party and its location, and if you've never attended one, ask others what to expect.
For women, dressing is always a bit more complicated, says Luizzi. She recommends giving a classic look a modern twist by pairing a simple black cocktail dress, a tailored black suit or a silk blouse and knee-length pencil skirt with a fun, trendy accessory. In style this year are tuxedo jackets, textured tights, chunky jewelry and glittery bags and shoes. Oftentimes, the right accessory can even be used as a talking point. For men, Luizzi recommends a pinstriped or charcoal-colored suit with a jewel-toned tie or, depending on the location, dark-wash jeans and a sport coat.
Blow It: "Do not wear every trend at once," warns Luizzi, adding that sequins from head to toe will not project "professional." She also advises women to be particularly careful about showing too much skin, as bare legs and strappy sandals, plunging necklines, too-short hemlines and tight, clingy clothing may make bosses question your competence. For those festive individuals, fabric choice and color should portray your holiday cheer—not snowflake, candy cane, Christmas tree or skiing patterns.
Use It: According to Jahnke, giving a holiday toast is one of the best ways to create a platform to be seen, but it must be well thought out and carefully done. She advises focusing outward by recognizing a hard-working colleague or applauding a team that brought big results. Practice beforehand and keep it short, she says. "It's hard to mess up in 20 seconds," but anything over 90 seconds is too long. Take a deep breath, stand up straight, place one foot slightly in front of the other and smile to create a relaxed and inviting presence.
Blow It: "Go easy on the egg-nog," Jahnke warns. "The more you drink the more likely you are to say something inappropriate." Overindulging may also slur your speech and upset your balance without you even realizing it. Don't use the podium to go into a comedy routine either, which could too easily turn sour, and beware of rambling on about yourself or for too long. Also, honesty is paramount. "If you're not sincere," she says, "your colleagues will know and suspect brownnosing."
Use It: "If you want to stand out, this is the setting where you can take some initiative," says Jahnke. "Walk up and introduce yourself." State your name slowly and clearly, she suggests, and say basically what it is you do or who you work with without fumbling over a long technical title. Have a couple icebreakers ready, like asking about holiday plans or complimenting an interesting piece of jewelry, to cut the tension. Include others nearby in the conversation, and keep topics light rather than talking shop, she counsels.
Blow It: If you're unmarried and dates are invited, be very careful about who you bring, says Jahnke. "Is this someone you really want to introduce to your boss?" Similarly, flirting is a major no-no. In the Adecco survey, 3% admitted the holiday party led to an embarrassing fling with a coworker. Finally, be very aware of what comes out of your mouth. This is not the time to ask what John Doe really does all day or detail how you would reorganize the company. Men especially take care, as 11% (vs. 4% of women) regret saying something inappropriate at a holiday party.
Use It: When you're in a circle, says Jahnke, rather than firing off your elevator pitch, try to get to know colleagues better and show your personality. The most effective tactic is to ask questions. If you've seen a boating picture in the boss's office, ask if it's a hobby. If you've noticed a book or shared interest via social media, inquire about it. "People like to talk about themselves," Jahnke notes, "and it makes for a much more interesting conversation than work."
Blow It: Never venture into something confidential or private, and stay away from advice-giving and negativity. If the conversation hits a lull or you find yourself standing alone for a moment, do not pull out your phone. "Social network in the room, not on your mobile device," advises etiquette expert Anna Post, author of the latest edition of Emily Post's Etiquette. Otherwise you'll appear bored or unavailable and cut yourself off from potential networking opportunities.