Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and leadership and diversity consultant. He is the author of ‘Think Like a White Man’, a co-founder of the Black Writers’ Guild and a BBC Clore fellow. He previously worked in finance.
Ready or not, Covid-related working from home is gradually fading into our collective rear-view mirrors and a mass return to the workplace is now on the horizon. But with this return to “normality” comes a much-misunderstood area of risk to all careers: the work social event.
For many employees, work socials are an opportunity to let their hair down. For the corporation, however, it is stone-cold business: it deepens camaraderie, improves working relationships, relieves tension, broadens networks, encourages creativity and, in many regions, is tax-deductible (within limits).
As a result, unless you started your career in the Covid age, you’ve probably been on a work jolly or two. Karaoke, paintballing, bowling, quizzes, go-karting, black-tie dinners, the “eating is cheating” pub crawl (my biggest dread) and, of course, the Christmas party. All are usually fuelled by alcohol — what could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out. A 2018 survey conducted for hangover supplement makers After Drink found that 9 per cent of British workers had been fired or disciplined due to their Christmas party conduct. But by following some simple rules you can avoid a post-Covid “partygate”.
1. The work social is work in disguise
You’re still on the company’s clock at a social event: conduct or conversation that is beyond the pale in the office is equally unacceptable at the party. Simple as that sounds, some people only become aware of this in the days following an event when they receive a message from HR with the dreaded words, “Can we have a chat?”.
2. The tabloid rule
One of the oldest cautionary corporate adages is: “Before you do, say or write anything, consider how it would look or sound on the cover of a newspaper.” Never do or say anything at a work party that you would not do or say in front of a member of the clergy or even, heaven forbid, a tabloid journalist.
3. Curb your enthusiasm (and your alcohol consumption)
Exciting environments kill inhibition — so does alcohol. The nine-to-five you will be held responsible for the discombobulated you. Managing your decorum is about managing your alcohol consumption. This is partly why I am recognisable with waiters and bartenders around London for consistently burdening them with orders for a beginners “cocktail” that is 85 to 95 per cent lemonade and the rest beer.
4. The frenemy rule
If the term “work mate” was in promotional material for a financial product, compliance officers would highlight its misleading nature. Your work mate is a rival, not your friend, and if your job is remotely desirable, they probably want it. An easy way to banish a colleague is to goad or enable them into saying or doing something unwise at an office bash.
5. What gets you rewarded can get you punished
The work social is an extrovert’s natural habitat. The more sociable you are, the better you’re likely to do. But the law of diminishing returns applies: being a bit too socially adept and familiar may breed a degree of collegiate contempt. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
6. Gossip with caution
Gossip remains the most exchanged currency of networking. If you don’t know the gossip, you’re not networking well (or, worse, the gossip is about you). Trade cautiously at a party, however, as there’s a high chance it could return to the source.
7. Avoid politics and religion
Still instant career-death territory — avoid at all costs. We may also need to add science to this sacred list of career-killing topics. One acquaintance discovered this the hard way when she attempted to unite a divided dinner table by steering conversation away from the last US presidential election and into the Covid-19 vaccine. She was successful in coalescing much of the table — firmly against her.
8. Know the culture
Despite the fact that it livened up an otherwise boring work lunch, I was once reprimanded for starting a conversation about the singer R Kelly’s then-upcoming 2008 trial on charges of child pornography. What was the talk of the town in my circles cast me into outer darkness with my bosses. My sin: not knowing the culture and therefore not knowing what appropriate discourse was. As a matter of pure coincidence (and not duress), I’ve since cultivated serious expertise on wine, cheese, Cumberland sausages, hunting and 60s popular culture.
9. Don’t make your boss feel stupid (quiz specific)
There are few more effective ways to alienate your boss than to embarrass them in the company quiz. Whether they’re on your team or not, you may need to take your foot off the intellectual gas and let your boss prevail. Plus, no one likes a show-off.
10. The overarching rule
Let your hair down, but don’t lose your head.