Receiving an invitation to any social event—whether it’s a wedding, barbeque, or birthday party—is exciting. But as much fun as these events can be, if the invite lists include your co-workers or boss, they can also border on awkward. How do you act around your colleagues when you’re outside the office? If you’re doing the inviting, do you have to include everyone?
Whether you’re the host or a guest, chances are you could benefit from a little refresher when it comes to the etiquette of interacting with your colleagues in a social setting—so people remember you for all the right reasons.
I spoke with Jacqueline Whitmore, business etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals, and Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute, who offered pointers on how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls of mixing business with pleasure.
The Guest List
First, let’s broach what can be the most complicated situation: a wedding. Whether you’re the bride or groom, you may feel obligated to invite your whole department to the nuptials, lest someone find out he or she didn’t make the guest list and give you the cold shoulder well beyond your first anniversary. But fear not, Whitmore says.
“It is awkward,” the etiquette expert acknowledges, “but you shouldn’t feel compelled to invite everybody at the office. Instead, include those in your immediate department or those you’re closest with. If anyone questions it, you can simply say you were limited by venue capacity or say something like, ‘We decided to keep it small, under 85 people.’”
Post agrees and says that people need to have a thick skin and realize not everyone is going to be invited to every event.
“Within a group of 20, you might have five people who hang out together a lot,” Post explains. “Maybe it’s because they’re all single or they’re all married with kids. Whatever the reason, if it’s known that you socialize as a group, then just keep it to those people. But don’t do the inviting at work, and if you’re an invited guest, don’t flaunt it.”
Inclusion is important if it’s a work-related event, Post says, but when it comes to casual get-togethers, “You’re allowed to pick your friends.”
Speaking of selecting your guests, if you’re invited to bring someone along with you, Whitmore recommends choosing this person wisely, for obvious reasons. No one wants to be associated with an obnoxious braggart or the gal who scooped all the dinner rolls into a take-home container.
“If he or she gets sloppy drunk, that makes you look bad,” Whitmore adds.
No matter the occasion, your guest and his or her behavior is a reflection on you. Whoever you pick, make sure he or she will be professional, engaging, and will ultimately leave the rest of the attendees with a positive impression.
Now here’s a really tricky situation: What do you do when the guest you’d like to bring is the co-worker you’ve been dating? Post says the rules on this are dictated by your company’s policy. If dating co-workers is a no-no according to the organization’s handbook, then choose someone else or go alone. If it’s acceptable for employees to date, then you can feel free to bring your significant other.
But, Post says, just like at any gathering, keep the PDA to a minimum. Sitting close together or putting an arm around a shoulder is completely appropriate, she says. Anything beyond that, save for later.
The One-Drink Rule
Whether you’re at a wedding or a barbecue, you’re there for social reasons—but you still shouldn’t “let it all hang out,” Whitmore advises.
“You don’t want to be the talk of the water cooler circle come Monday morning. Remember, everything in moderation. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself, but be mindful of your behavior. Some people can drink three cocktails and be unaffected. Some have one and the next thing they know, they’re drunk.”
Even if your co-workers aren’t at the event, your reputation is at stake, Whitmore says. For example, if you’re introduced to a networking contact at the event, you don’t want to be remembered as the person who interrupted the conversation and asked the flower girl to hold her mojito so she could get her chicken dance on.
Post advises sticking with the Post Institute’s one-drink rule. “You never know how strong the drinks are, or if today is the day that one is going to knock you off your feet. Err on the side of caution. You’re never going to lose friends by not having that second drink.”
The Dress Code
If you have any questions about the event dress code, don’t be afraid to ask your host, Whitmore says. Arriving either over- or under-dressed will leave you feeling uncomfortable, so it’s worth the effort to double check.
If it’s an annual event, Post recommends consulting colleagues who’ve attended previously. There’s a big difference between a pool party and a party around the pool, she points out.
If you’d prefer not to ask or are unsure about who else is invited, consider your company culture—for example, if you wear jeans on a daily basis, you can probably expect your co-workers to show up to an outdoor barbeque in shorts. If your office is business formal, attendees may prefer well-kept jeans and nice blouses or shirts.
But even if you know the dress code, seeing your boss make the switch from a pinstripe suit to a swimsuit can definitely be jarring, and chances are, your superior feels the same way about you. To make it a little easier on everyone, dress conservatively for the occasion, and keep your swimsuit and cover-up in a bag and change if necessary.
Especially if there’s a lull or awkward silence in the conversation, you may be tempted to fill it with a work story—but try to resist.
“You shouldn’t talk shop at all,” says Whitmore. “If you’re at a wedding, it’s a celebration. Even if you’re attending a post-work event with a group of colleagues, use your discretion. Leave work-related chatter at work. Something may come up and you can comment on it, but don’t spend much time on it.”
Discussing other topics will let your co-workers know you have hobbies outside of work, which can help you build deeper relationships. And don’t neglect to ask your colleagues about their own interests, as you may find you have more in common than just your employer.
When it comes to a wedding gift, Whitmore says a good rule of thumb is to cover the cost of your meal. Yes, even if you’ve had to fly across the country and drop a bundle on a hotel—because attending the wedding is your choice. Whether you choose to go above and beyond the amount of your dinner is up to you. However, be sure to cover the cost of your guest as well, if you’re bringing one.
If you’re attending a more casual event, bringing a gift is a perfect way to show your appreciation for the invitation. But don’t make more work for an already-busy host. Flowers are lovely, but they require the host to find a vase and do a bit of trimming or arranging. Wine is also nice, but unless you know your hosts’ preferences, it can be challenging to make the right selection.
Instead, consider bringing something you love that you think your colleague will also appreciate, like a box of chocolates he or she can either serve to guests or enjoy later.
If you received a last-minute invite or forgot to pick up a little something, consider making a donation to your host’s favorite charity in his or her name after the event.
You may have had a blast at a colleague’s wedding or beach party, but it pays to ask permission before you post pictures of the event on social media. Not everyone wants their social life documented and shared, so check with anyone in the photos before you find yourself in an awkward conversation.
If you’ve gotten the all-clear, Post says don’t feel bad about possibly offending co-workers who may see you’ve attended an outing, when they didn’t make the cut.
“Again, people recognize that everyone can’t be invited to every event, every time,” she says. “We’re all adults; we shouldn’t be so easily offended.”
You should absolutely attend social events with your co-workers, but remember, what happens at these gatherings doesn’t necessarily stay there. Enjoy yourself, but keep these etiquette tips in mind to keep your reputation intact.