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Oh, Behave!

Who to talk to, when to leave, and how to manage an office-party crisis.

Maybe it has been an exceptionally good year, and it's high time for a blowout. Or it's been a lousy year, and everyone is desperate for a chance to unwind. Either way, there's no avoiding the company party-and the potential booby traps that lie amidst the finger food and open bar.

Whether you're at the top of an organization or clawing your way upward, it's wise to come to the party prepared, mind your behavior, and be ready to do some crisis management. While it seems mind-numbingly obvious, it's astounding how easily reputations can be damaged and opportunities can be missed at the annual office bash. Don't be the boss who makes an ass of himself on the dance floor, the partner with the too-short skirt, or the sales manager who suggests everyone decamp to a strip club.

"People look at me and say I'm nuts when I tell them to watch how much they drink," says Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute and an etiquette adviser to companies such as Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and Pfizer. "But this is the No. 1 mistake people make. Don't let alcohol get the better of you."

He suggests stretching one drink through the entire party. It's not as much fun as knocking back a few, but you won't be apologizing to anyone the next day. A classic power drink like Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks is a good choice, says restaurateur John McDonald, owner of New York's Lever House, Royalton Brasserie 44, and Lure Fishbar. "It's a sipping cocktail, so you won't have to make a trip to refill and can focus on conversations."

But you should start mapping out a strategy before the drinking begins-way before.

First, choose carefully who you bring as a guest (if you do have any choice in the matter). "It's not the place to bring the new hot chick you just met, because you can not be sure what she might say or do," says Kate Zabriskie, president of Business Training Works, a consulting firm in Washington that advises Microsoft and BMW, among others. Brief your date on topics to avoid, people who are important, and details that might get a conversation going. "You can say, 'I know you just got back from Poland,' " Zabriskie suggests. She warns against bringing someone who has never been to a corporate event. "They eat too much, drink too much, or, worse, talk too much."

Decide in advance how you will greet colleagues-and watch for body language. "If you know someone well, a hug or a kiss on the cheek is fine," Zabriskie says. "If a woman puts out her hand and you lean over and slobber on her, it won't go over well."

Conversation is key, but not with the usual suspects-or the usual attitude. "A lot of people are used to spouting their opinions, being large and in charge," Post says. But the party is a chance to learn about your colleagues, show a personal side to those above you, and let a ladder down to subordinates. Ask about their tennis game, their family, their music interests. Travel is generally a safe topic, says Zabriskie. Avoid health and religion. And don't overstay your welcome: Chat for a few minutes, then excuse yourself so as not to play favorites or monopolize the boss's time.

Remember that many a career has come undone at office parties, as when ambitious workers fueled by alcohol corner the boss and start making demands. "It's definitely not the time to be saying, 'We had a great year, how about that raise,' or to air grievances," Post admonishes.

Not knowing when to go home is also a common mistake, according to Lydia Ramsey, an etiquette consultant based in Savannah, Georgia, and author of Manners That Sell. Ramsey has worked with entities including Deloitte & Touche and Columbia Business School. She advises deciding on an exit time before the party and sticking to it. "There are the parties when suddenly everyone is at a strip club," she says. "Probably not a good idea to go along with that." Stick around the party long enough to speak to everyone at the event, assuming there are not thousands of guests. "You need to stay there for at least an hour or you will give the impression that your appearance was merely obligatory."

Sneaking out comes off as boorish and immature. When you must leave, say your babysitter is waiting, you're seeing a play with your mother, or something else responsible sounding. "Thank the boss for a great party and get out of there," Ramsey advises. And be forewarned that there are few acceptable excuses for not attending the party at all.

If somehow you ignore the watch-what-you-drink rule, the key to retaining a scrap of respect is to own up to your misbehavior as soon as possible. Be brief, prompt, and professional in your apology note: Simply write "I'm sorry. It won't happen again," and send it to the boss and anyone else you may have offended. Redeem your company's image at the party venue with a bunch of flowers and a letter to the manager: "Please accept my apologies for my behavior at the [insert company name] event last night. I regret the inconvenience it caused you and your staff."

Of course, if you behaved perfectly, a thank-you note will just top off your success.

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