Brush up on etiquette before the office party

Friday, November 18, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 47
By Hollie Deese

Business parties, dinners and networking events abound during the holidays. And while they can elicit groans and cause a bit of stress, they are actually a great way to distinguish yourself from your boardroom persona – and fellow colleagues – by making a great impression with modern table and party manners.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, international protocol expert and founder of Austin-based Protocol and Etiquette Worldwide.

She says to ace these business events it is important to employ certain dining tips – with some tweaking for the holidays – to present yourself in the best manner possible.

“The basic rule of dining etiquette stays the same, but you have your social dining and then you have business dining – there are two different sets of rules. There are some basic rules that cross over, but there are some differences,” Schweitzer says.


Schweitzer says the person extending the invitation is the host and is responsible for payment of the bill. When receiving or extending invitations, pay attention to special dietary needs like food allergies or sensitivities, kosher, halal, gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free diets. Be sure to communicate any dietary restrictions within 24 hours of the invitation.

Guest Duties

As a guest, observe the host for cues.

If the event is a seated business dinner, place your napkin in your lap after the host; the host does so first to signal the start of the meal. When excusing yourself between courses, the napkin is placed on the chair seat soiled side down. At meal’s end, place your loosely folded napkin on the left of your plate after the host does. Don’t refold it.

“In the office, whenever you’re all having a meal, men do not pull the chair out for ladies at the table,” she explains.

“Some would argue that in many parts of the United States men don’t do that anyway, but in some parts of the US that still happens on a social level. But you would not see that in the workplace because the workplace is gender neutral, or it’s supposed to be.”

Silverware and Service Signals

Once silverware is used, including handles, it doesn’t touch the table again. Rest forks, knives and spoons on the side of your plate.

Unused silverware stays on the table. If you are resting between bites, place your fork – tines up – near the top of your plate. To signal the server that you’re finished, place your fork and knife across the center of the plate at the 5 o’clock position.

Service signals also include closing your menu to indicate you’re ready to order. If you are browsing an open menu, the server has the impression you aren’t ready.


Ask the person who invited you for suggestions on the menu. Ask them to make suggestions or for their favorite dish. Listen carefully because they will provide a top and bottom price range based on the entrées they recommend. Then select a moderately priced item or one of the dishes they recommend.


If the host orders alcohol and you don’t wish to drink, just order the beverage of your preference without an explanation. You are under no obligation to consume alcohol at lunch or any other time of the day. Polite dining companions will not comment or ask questions.

When it comes to holiday parties, Schweitzer says whether to drink or not really begins with the culture of the office.

“You have to look at what is the workplace culture, what are the policies that are in place and what the host is doing,” she points out.

“Some hosts go all out and they have an open bar, some hosts don’t do that. Or they provide tickets for the guest to purchase drinks and then you have the guest trading tickets and somebody ends up with four tickets. Some employers or companies now just do events as opposed to holiday parties.”

Mix and mingle

It’s the host’s job to keep conversation going during a meal but guests must contribute too – just don’t monopolize the conversation. Instead, ask questions and express interest. Light topics include books, travel, vacation, movies, and pets; avoid politics, sex and religion.

“If I have a holiday party with my folks I’m going to go in and I’m going to talk about, No. 1, movies,” Schweitzer says.

“Then, what are their vacation plans? And ask not just where, but what kind of a trip was it – get into a little more detail.

Another really good topic is pets. People will just light up and bond over their pets. This gets people talking about really fun, interesting things and stays away from the topics that people start rolling their eyes.”

Schweitzer says it is also important to greet people from outside the workplace with warmth and make introductions for them among the rest of the group.

“Really, you’re representing your company. You’re an ambassador for your company, so if you see someone who you’ve done business with, you want to introduce them to somebody else within the company that maybe they don’t know yet because that’s part of relationship building.”

It is important to continually mix and mingle throughout a work event, so if you find yourself stuck on one place and need to extract yourself from an extended one-on-one, Schweitzer suggests to have some polite conversation closers on hand.

“In this situation it would be nice to be able to say, ‘You know, I really enjoyed visiting with you this evening, would you excuse me?’ Then you can go and circulate a little bit more with some other folks,” she says.

“You have to act like you’re a happy guest, and you want to provide a warm and friendly environment for everyone. You want to make everyone feel welcome.”

Nix the gift

Schweitzer says office gifts, no matter how small, need to be an open conversation among all of the employees, with a decision on what to gift the boss, managers, supervisors and each other made as a group. Don’t buy something really nice for the boss without everyone else getting in on it.

“Then you really look like you’re pandering your favoritism and that’s what doesn’t work,” she says.

Ultimately, when it comes to work-related gatherings over the holidays, it is important to actually go Schweitzer says, despite how busy life gets that time of year. Consider these gatherings mandatory work events to make them a priority.

“It’s a business obligation and it’s a business requirement that you go,” she adds.

“If you don’t go, ask yourself what kind of message you are sending. We all attend things and we do things that are important to us – if your job’s not important, then don’t go.”