'Merry Christmas, You're Fired!' Holiday Office Parties from Hell

ByASHLEY PHILLIPS via via logo

Dec. 1, 2006 — -- The annual office holiday party conjures images of drunk coworkers, uncomfortable "secret Santa" gift exchanges, cringe-worthy karaoke and awkward business blather.

Most people escape unscathed, relieved that the annual ordeal is over. But stories about employees who don't behave are passed around long after the party is over; besides the embarrassment, drunken antics can even jeopardize their careers.

Nicole Chavas, 25, an accountant for a financial services firm in Chicago, had only been working at her new job for a few months before her office party.

"Since I'm a bit shy, I was hoping the party would be a good way to loosen up and get to know my coworkers better," Chavas said. "Of course, when there's an open bar beginning at 4 p.m., wanting to 'loosen up' became 'getting wasted and losing all inhibitions.'"

As the night progressed and Chavas got more and more inebriated, she called her boss' work phone number and had a co-worker leave a message for the boss saying that she wouldn't be making it into work the next day.

"He promptly left some rambling message about how 'Nicole is probably going to call in sick. You work her too hard. She needs a vacation anyway,'" she said.

When Chavas did return to work, she was, understandably, embarrassed, but even more so when her department serenaded her by playing back the several messages she left for her boss.

"Later, to add insult to injury, pictures from the party were released and there were two of me downing a glass of wine, which was promptly printed and displayed on my coworker's wall for several months," she said. "Luckily, everyone was relatively good-natured about the whole thing."

One of the most obvious office party faux pas is overindulging at the company-funded open bar. Typically the formula goes something like this: take an office full of coworkers, add alcohol. Hilarity ensues.

That's certainly what happened with Chavas, and she's not alone. A recent survey conducted by a professional women's group found that drinking too much was the number one regret of women at their office parties. Sixty percent of the women surveyed changed their opinion of a co-worker after witnessing mojito-fueled hijinks.

Rachael, a New York fashion designer, told ABC News that at one holiday office party where she'd had too much to drink, she started asking her coworkers if they had any marijuana.

"That was kind of embarrassing the next day," she said.

"At any sort of cocktail party ... you don't want to be that guy or girl, the one that just goes over the top … gets hammered [and] has sex with her boss or someone's sister," said David Wollock, a TV producer and coauthor of "Etiquette for Outlaws."

"On the other hand I do think that office parties present you with a really good opportunity to sort of navigate different work cliques that you don't normally associate yourself with," Wollock said. "If your boss totally parties ... and you can party with him at the office party, I do think that raises your status."

But Wollock's "Etiquette for Outlaws" co-author Rob Cohen thinks drunkeness and office parties go hand in hand.

"If there's no alcohol, it's like being at work on your free time. ... Watching people get drunk and act like jackasses is the reason to go to an office party," Cohen said. "I sort of look forward to it. ... What would happen this year?"

Another awkward holiday office party tradition? Exchanging gifts. Draw a name and buy a present that you find "appropriate" for your coworker.

Suzy Parker, 26, of Los Angeles, who works in nonprofit fundraising, says the annual ritual at her office party is just plain awkward.

"Everyone watches as you open your gift and you have to hide your disappointment when you find out that the weird guy in the cube next door pulled your name in the exchange," she said.

One man in her office gave a woman co-worker a glow-in-the-dark Felix the Cat T-shirt.

"I know you like cats," he told her, though the woman was allergic to them.

Gag gifts should be avoided, according to Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute and author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success."

"What's off limits is anything that smacks of being personal or suggestive," Post said. "Good gifts that don't have to fraught with the trouble."

Instead, give gifts like food baskets, plants or tickets to the movies.

"All [are] highly appreciated and none of them carry the baggage of a gift that is somehow embarrassing or insults a person in one way or another," he said.

But employees aren't the only people who need etiquette lessons; some times the bosses could use a little help as well.

During one New York-based magazine company's holiday festivities, the firm's president stood up to make an announcement, according to an editor who attended the event. The employees were expecting him to make a toast.

"Instead he gets up there and after thanking us for all the hard work we do, he tells us he's selling the [business] ... which leaves us with the question of what if it doesn't sell," she said. "We sort of all [knew] that we [were] going to lose our jobs."

Negative announcements at holiday parties are a big no-no, Post said.

"The party by its very nature is meant to be a team building exercise," he said. "But from a company's point of view ... throwing a party is giving [the employees] something with out asking anything in return. ... and then to dilute that with an announcement like that is absurd."

Positive company announcements, like a bonus, can be made at office social functions, but negative announcements should be saved for the business day, he said.

But not surprisingly, Post's no. 1 tip: watch the alcohol.

"There's more trouble that happens from drinking ... and then having to apologize for boorish behavior," he said. "What people forget is that the office party is still a business social event and it has to do with your business ... and it reflects on you when you're back in the office."

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