Holiday Party Damage Control

How to recover from those yuletide office party blunders.

Nov. 27, 2008 — -- Like most workers, I once had a boss who drank a few too many cups of eggnog at the company holiday party and crossed almost every line in the book.

His slurred speech, lack of volume control and over-the-top displays of affection were bad enough. But they didn't hold a candle to the impromptu performance he gave of "What's the Buzz" from "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- complete with choreography -- just before passing out.

Mortified on Monday morning, my boss came to work dressed like Clark Kent, from chunky black glasses and newscaster hair to drab suit and tie. Because jeans and an indie rock T-shirt were standard dress at the small, media company where he worked, his hasty makeover quickly became as hot a topic around the water cooler as his holiday party train wreck.

Which raises the question: Will the holidays bite you, too, in the rear this year?

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According to a survey released in November by online payroll service SurePayroll, 60 percent of small businesses plan to throw their employees a holiday bash this year, recession be damned. With employers more layoff-happy than ever, the last thing you want to do at a holiday party is give the powers that be reason to question your judgment.

Obviously, the best way to avoid being the office party casualty is to not drink like a fish. But considering that rehab facility Caron Treatment Centers recently reported that 64 percent of office party attendees have seen a co-worker get sloppy drunk, there's a decent chance many of us will throw caution to the wind and join the ranks of my former boss.

So let's assume you do get so sauced at your office party that you wind up dancing on the bar, groping someone you shouldn't and/or reenacting your favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. How can you save your reputation -- and your job -- come Monday morning?

Face the Gaffe Head-On

First and foremost, don't quit your job. Or dodge your co-workers when you see them in the hallway. And don't create some silly diversion like my boss, who resorted to a disguise instead of owning up to his bad behavior.

Failing to acknowledge your mistake will baffle your colleagues as much if not more than any transgressions you may have made at the party.

A.J. Probst, executive director of an educational consortium in Mexico, Mo., can attest to that.

Back when he worked in radio, he attended a holiday party at his boss' posh home that got way out of hand (a painting over the sofa accidentally caught fire, the boss passed out and the last guests standing wound up in the indoor hot tub).

"Around 2 a.m., we heard, 'Hey guys, what's up?'" Probst said. "In walks the boss, butt naked, drinking champagne straight from the bottle and smoking one of those colored Nat Sherman cigarettes. The topper was his hair was matted with pink puke."

The next business day, the big cheese held a staff meeting with the partygoers.

"He doesn't mention the scorched painting," Probst said. "He doesn't mention his solo parade. He only thanks everyone for coming but says his wife is a little disappointed that someone spilled punch on one of her rugs and didn't have the common courtesy to daub it up before the stain set in. He dismissed the meeting and it was all we could do to retain control until we were out of earshot."

Not exactly the reaction a manager hopes to inspire among his or her staff.

Apologize but Make It Count

If, like Probst's boss, you make a spectacle of yourself at a work-related party, don't fall all over yourself Monday morning groveling and apologizing for the day you were born. Say you're sorry quickly, definitively, as though ripping off a band aid.

Mary Mitchell, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette," suggests saying something like this:

"I really apologize that at our office party I forgot that the operative word really is 'office.' I'm embarrassed. And I'm sorry that I embarrassed you. I hope we can put this behind us and move on."

You'll, of course, have to stave off any repeat performances, Mitchell advised. A company might be willing to forgive and forget that you berated the party's wait-staff once but don't expect a second reprieve. Repeat offenders are often the first to go if the company downsizes.

At the very least, you could be branded the office lush, like the former co-worker of a New Jersey sales professional I'll call "Gina."

At the end of a recent holiday party, Gina's "obviously drunk" co-worker (a.k.a., Office Lush) hitched a ride home with three other colleagues during a snowstorm and proceeded to lose her cookies all over the car (a company car, by the way) and its other three occupants.

"Eventually, they dumped sales materials out of a large cardboard box and gave it to her to keep throwing up in," Gina told me via e-mail. "When they got to her town, she was so drunk she couldn't remember where she lived."

Though Gina's co-worker "apologized profusely" the next business day, she soon became involved in another "embarrassing moment," nearly getting arrested for punching a stranger at a St. Patrick's Day parade that her team attended, firmly solidifying her reputation as Office Lush.

Update Your Resume

For the most egregious transgressions -- wardrobe malfunctions, naked photos and blatant plays for the boss' sweetie -- you'd be wise to dust off your resume and prepare for the worst.

Once you've tarnished your reputation this badly, "You can't go back," said attorney Jonathan Segal, co-chairman of the employment group at law firm WolfBlock in Philadelphia. "The statement, 'It was not me; it was Jack Daniels or Jim Beam,' does not work."

Maybe you'll get lucky and your job won't be in jeopardy today. But, make no mistake, your employer has taken note -- even if you weren't the only employee out of line, even if the higher-ups were falling-down drunk and showing off their birthday suits, too. Definitely not something you want in your HR file should your employer start handing out pink slips.

As Mitchell, the etiquette expert, notes, holiday parties offer an excellent opportunity to play fly on the wall and see what really makes your colleagues tick.

"And," she said, "wouldn't you prefer to take all that in as data than contribute to someone else's data bank?"

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,