How to Have a Scandal-Free Holiday Party

Follow these guidelines for a worry-free festive bash.

By Ted Kruckel September 18, 2012, 8:45 AM EDT

I’m a fan of holiday cookies. They help fill up the empty stomachs of drinkers. These are from Great Performances in New York.

Photo: Josh Tierney/Great Performances

It is axiomatic that corporate holiday events can make for problems. All the do-gooder lists in the world that start appearing the day after Thanksgiving with super-obvious behavior pointers—don’t drink too much, don’t sleep with the hottie intern—do little to stem the tide of Christmas-party mishaps.

And there’s good reason. The big party at the end of the year has so many loaded messages. The issues of raises, bonuses, personality conflicts (and their evil, yet seemingly well-intentioned twins, the conflict-resolution attempts), repressed sexual attraction, competition for attention with the higher-ups, nervousness about the unclear politics of gift exchanging—they all mash together with the excitement and pressure of the holidays, and you have the perfect party storm.

But they’re not going away. Remember when the economy first hit the skids and companies were announcing that they were cancelling their parties? Self magazine had to issue an apologetic release stating that they were having a party because they had a good year, but that they in no way wanted to make light of the difficulties facing other magazines, particularly their sister Condé Nast titles. Commence snickering here.

Well, the recession is like 20 years old (feels like it, no?) and the new normal of budget cuts seems like a fond memory now that the new austerity is the agreed-upon budgeting mood of the day. Companies are still throwing parties, venues are still pushing them. (A personalized email from a billiards club just the other day invited me to come and take a look at their pool hall as a possible end-of-year event site, and to enjoy a night of free pool and booze as my professional reward seemed to deliciously hit all the wrong notes.)

As Sarah Palin might say: Man up, people! Holiday party planning is not for sissies. We can beat the system (or at least game it) so that we can have a great shindig and still avoid answering any awkward questions the next morning.

So in that holiday spirit, I offer these carefully considered guidelines.

Don’t Show Me the Money
Tell the boss that bonuses and booze do not mix. Whether you are getting some extra cash at the end of the year or not, the party is not the place to find out. Keep the bestowment of cash and the holiday punch bowl separated by days, even weeks, if possible. And need I state the obvious that the party will be better if employees are still hoping for a check and therefore on their best behavior? So the party comes first.

Strap On the Feedbag, Big Time
It just amazes me how people don’t understand this. The time for eating is before the alcohol goes down. Tyra Banks once catered a party with late-arriving food from McDonald’s—and not enough, resulting in barfing and fistfights. Heavy hors d’oeuvres are what’s called for, not nifty little bites. Get some sausage and egg and cheese in them. For the vegans, try bean chili in nut flour pastry for the same effect. And if you want people to eat, you need to pass the food. A big zaftig buffet looks great, but most people take two pops before making their way over there, and if it’s a long night ahead you may have already lost them. Have nuts and those cheese sticks you can buy at any supermarket all over the bar. Put extra olives in the martinis if you think that will help.

Dress Code of Behavior
Another axiom—can you tell it was Merriam-Webster word of the day?—is that people will act more professionally if they are properly attired. Stipulate the standards and use strongly worded invite text to get the point across. I guess the days of “coats and dresses” are long gone, but try saying “Dress your Sunday best.” Or “Leave the cleavage and wife beaters at home.”

Police State
Just because it’s an intramural game, you don’t skip having a referee. We hire security for a bunch of reasons, and one of them is that some big guys in dark suits discourage barfing and bar fights, Tyra.

“Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn”
That’s a line from Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (a great party song, by the way), and the lyrics go on to point out that these hospitality establishments more easily facilitate infidelity: “If your girl starts actin’ up, then you take her friend.”

I once attended a Condé Nast holiday party at the Royalton Hotel and could not help noticing that the publisher and his New York sales manager conspiratorially got into an elevator and headed upstairs together. You’re probably thinking, given the general reprobate tone of this column, that I was thrilled to catch this indiscretion, but I knew the Long Island wife involved and so I was mad to be placed in that position. I’m sure there’s a hotel-lobbying association out there that will put a hit on me, but for holiday parties I stay away from events in buildings where beds are for hire and only a floor or two away.

Rest in Peace, Patrick Swayze
You should also take a permanent break from DJs and nightclubs that don’t get how to tone it down for a holiday night. One way to tell if your music is too, let’s say, “dance ambitious,” is if the guys from the mailroom and their surprisingly hot girlfriends are the first to hit the floor.

Troubleshooting Checklist
1. Cookies? Dumb question. Of course. Light and crisp ones are the best, not the horrible doughy things that everyone serves, though.

2. Significant others? Yes, if the custom is that they attend other events with the team; otherwise, absolutely not.

3. Yankee swap? Only if you have an organizer who knows what he’s doing and keeps it moving.

4. Punch bowl? Champagne punch or some facsimile thereof is festive, budget-friendly, and low-alcohol, so the answer is triple yes.

5. Staff photographer? Why invite trouble? Let the Facebook fools hang themselves, just don’t bring the rope.

6. Hanukkah/Kwanzaa multi-culti nods? Why not get staff volunteers to come up with ways to acknowledge the non-Christians? I celebrate Christmas and I think everyone should get behind the Santa Claus-and-tree part—isn’t it pagan, after all?—but I think using the word “holiday” as a rule demonstrates reason and restraint. Sorry, tea partyers.

7. Mistletoe? Lest ye think me too prudish, I say, oh why not?

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