'Tis the Season of Reputational Ruin
Every holiday party is an opportunity to build or ruin your valuable reputation. Choose wisely.
If you value your reputation, if your community standing is meaningful, if you’re up for a raise or a promotion, if you don’t want your children and spouse to be shunned and compelled to change their name, if you don’t want to wake up in jail and spend the next couple of years entangled in the legal system, or worse, have your reputation and career annihilated overnight, heed my warning well: every holiday party holds the potential to either contribute or destroy your reputation.
Do I sound alarmist? Good. I’ve spent the last thirty years of my professional career coaching wildly successful people and organizations on how to avoid, mitigate and manage crisis incidents and negative reputational situations. And time after time, holiday season after holiday season, the blind spot for these holiday party attendees is their inability to discern the dangers of these festive, often over-the-top events. After getting caught doing or saying something stupid, illegal, or worse, my clients will often say, “I never thought it would happen to me.” Until it does.
Of course, you could simply choose not to attend a holiday party. But if you’re in management, a firm’s biggest client, the dean of a university, a celebrity, or a leader in your community, not showing up at a prominent holiday party is not an option. Not attending a major holiday party is not an option if you’re the state’s governor hosting your staff’s annual party.
Not attending a major holiday party is not an option if you’re the CEO hosting holiday parties in five separate countries. Or the TV anchorperson whose contract stipulates attendance at both the network and parent company’s holiday party and must stay for a specified number of hours. Or you’re the Bishop overseeing the diocese’s Christmas party. Not attending a party is not an option if you’re a start-up company’s founder and this is the first holiday with more than 100 employees. Or you’re an NFL team’s star quarterback whose been asked to publicly present a gift to the owner’s wife.
For most of my clients, leaders, and notables in their field, attending holiday parties is a command performance. The advice I give them is suitable for you, too.
Here’s my guidance: If you are well, the time frame fits your schedule, and there’s no greater priority, such as a family commitment, attend every holiday party as a leader, not a follower. A true leader approaches all life, both personal and professional, with an endless drive to make things better than they found them. A leader empowers others. Leaders create and build credibility. And leaders, regardless of the profession, are role models for others. The same goes true during the holiday party season.
Instead of attending a party with an attitude of resistance – “What’s in it for me?” – consider attending as a leader, with the mission to leave the party and those in attendance, feeling better than when you arrived. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
Approach every holiday party with the attitude of love and gratitude. Be thankful you’re alive. Be grateful you’re invited to every holiday party. Be appreciative that you hold the power to make other lives better and fuller. Go to parties with the belief every attendee can teach you something. Be curious. Consider some people you meet who need motivation. Be encouraging. Be aware of opportunities to be helpful. Be useful. Go to your next holiday party expecting something remarkable to happen. Be filled with wonder. Be the light, not the bulb.
This holiday season, follow my simple suggestions.
First, devise a purpose for attending the party and have a good time. Attending the holiday party will put you on a mission with an objective, strategy, and tactics. As a leader, even if you’re just a party attendee and not a featured guest playing a role, you’ll feel better having a purpose.
And, two, unlike some other party attendees, consciously choose in advance not to contribute to the inevitable holiday party drama. You see it at every party. Someone drinks too much. Someone confronts the boss. Someone dresses inappropriately. Someone makes a scene. But it won’t be you.
Have a purpose. No drama.
You won’t be the drunk throwing up on the couch. It won’t be you that runs over the ambassador’s dog. It won’t be you caught having sex with a client’s adult daughter in the hat check room. It won’t be you who pees in the pool from the diving board. And it won’t be you being dragged off in handcuffs because you punched the CMO in the mouth.
Sound melodramatic? They all happened, including the male general manager that allowed himself to be tied up S&M style under a desk by a female radio disc jockey, an attendee’s leg impaled on a gate, or a high-ranking female government official caught squatting in the bushes. And there are more, many more.
This leads me to my final point: limit your intoxicants. Every idiotic thing I’ve ever done or said at a party was under the influence of something. In the past, before I went to a social gathering, I would take a drink of vodka or bourbon and tell Candace I was taking “a shot of courage.” I’m ashamed to say I would drink at events and then stupidly drive home, which, in fact, led to a fender bender, although thankfully, never anything worse. But several of my clients have not been so lucky.
The single most prevalent contributor to holiday party disasters, ruined reputations, criminal offenses, anger outbursts, and offensive public behavior, is due to some level of intoxication. Here’s the thing: few mentally healthy people go to holiday parties with the intention of getting loaded and doing something stupid. But here’s what happens:
You go to a holiday party hungry, knowing there will be wonderful free food. Then you have a delicious holiday cocktail. Now you’re feeling euphoria and having fun. You relax. You’re offered another drink and another, and soon, you’re under the influence. The American poet, Dorothy Parker, is often quoted saying, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host.”
“I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host.” — Dorothy Parker
It’s a shame, but we are often remembered for our life’s worse moments. Professionally, in adulthood, those worse moments can cost us our careers, fortunes, reputations, our families, and worse, loss of life. Holiday parties can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate, have fun, and connect with new and old friends, all while contributing to your reputation as a leader worth following. But there is also a dark side.
I’m reminded of the senior executive who was competing for the CEO job of a Fortune 100 company, a job he had carefully worked toward his entire professional life. Sadly, one of his references told a recruiter, who subsequently told a Board member, about a holiday party 15 years ago where he got tipsy and tried kissing the boss's wife. And although he had been long forgiven, and wasn’t fired or disciplined, it was just enough to give the edge to the other candidate, and he didn’t get the job.
Bottom line: go to every holiday party with a mission. Stick to your plan. Stay sober. And go with the intention that you will leave the party better for your attending.
Cynics will say this is all bullshit. That’s okay. They choose to let circumstances and chance define them. You, you’re a leader. At the end of the day, no one is going to determine your reputation, write your story, or control how you’re perceived more than you. You got this.
AA - Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have a substance problem, it’s okay. Reach out. You’re not alone.
ACA - Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families - Another wonderful organization. Trust me, I know.
Holiday Party Etiquette Do’s & Don’ts for Christmas 2022 - Great tips by teambuilding.com
Holiday Office Party Etiquette: Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses - by fellow Texan and etiquette expert, Diane Gottsman