Every year around this time, my mailbag fills up with letters from readers asking if they have to attend their office holiday party. Apparently an awful lot of people really don't want to spend a few hours eating frosted cookies and cheese balls with their co-workers.
I'm sympathetic. After all, if the idea behind a holiday to party is to reward employees with something fun, why should you go if it doesn't sound like fun to you? But therein lies the mysterious contradiction of the company holiday party: It's supposed to be a perk for employees, but, oh, by the way—you're expected to attend. Frustrating? Yes. Contrary to the spirit of holiday cheer? Probably.
But you’d best get over your dread and attend your holiday party this year. Here’s why:
It might be unofficially compulsory. Most of us aren't used to associating "required" with "party," but in some offices, these parties are borderline mandatory. It's entirely possible that your boss doesn't care—but it's also entirely possible that he or she does (secretly or not so secretly). Even bosses who claim not to care often notice and care at some level, so you're safer assuming that yours will take note if you don’t make an appearance.
At its core, this is a business event, and that's how you should look at it. A holiday party is an invitation issued by the company to its employees, with at least a subtext of assumption that you'll attend. So if you aren’t looking forward to it, think of it like any other business obligation. This one just happens to come with sparkly dresses, bad music, and punch.
You'll get to know people in other areas of the company. At larger companies in particular, there are loads of people you normally never have the chance to interact with—and chatting with them is the main perk of the holiday party. Getting to know the CEO's assistant, the head of Legal, or that guy in accounting can pay off later in all kinds of ways (even if it's just the guy in accounting looking the other way when you turn your expense report in late).
You can raise your visibility with professionally important audiences. Because the party puts people at all levels of the company hierarchy together in the same room and commands them to socialize, this is a great opportunity to network, if you choose to use it that way. This is a chance to introduce yourself to company leaders who you might not normally talk to. Knowing them can be a huge boon in the future if you're trying to build support for an idea or a promotion, or if they're looking for someone to promote. Just make sure you raise your visibility the right way—by being smart and engaging—not by becoming the drunk guy who grabs the microphone from the DJ.
Still not convinced? Remind yourself that it's just a couple of hours once a year. You can handle that in exchange for not being known as the one person in your department who doesn’t accept the company's invitation for a night out. Besides, you can come late, and if you're miserable, leave early. But at least make an appearance.
And then, maybe start looking for a job with co-workers who you'd actually want to stand around eating frosted cookies with for a few hours every year.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.