Holiday Cheers: Emily Post Institute’s Etiquette for Work Happy Hours

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‘Tis the season for company happy hours, holiday work parties, and other social gatherings with coworkers. While you may have the coolest coworkers around, it’s important to remember that these gatherings aren’t purely social. The same rules as when you’re out with friends do not apply. For some guidance, we spoke to expert in the world of etiquette. Daniel Post Senning is the great-great grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post and author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute. With his cousin Lizzie Post, he co-hosts the Awesome Etiquette podcast and he graciously answered our questions about drinking with coworkers.

The Growler: What’s a good general etiquette rule to keep in mind for all situations?

Daniel Post Senning

Daniel Post Senning, The Emily Post Institute

Daniel Post Senning: One of the hallmarks of good etiquette is awareness. Being aware of the people around you, how they’re impacted by what you’re doing. So I think some of the sense of the situation and what role you’re playing in that situation is critically important.

TG: Specifically, what are the particular etiquette concerns of work happy hours?

DPS: I’ll start with the advice that we give all the time in our business seminars when we’re talking about business social. Whenever we’re approaching the topic of drinking in business social situations, and oftentimes just about anything in life could be a business social situation, we say particularly here in America you are never expected to drink and you’re never expected to give your reasons for not drinking. The reasons that people choose not to drink are incredibly personal and they vary wildly. Sometimes it’s health issues, sometimes it’s religious concerns, sometimes it’s a personal history of addiction or a history of addiction in the family. Those are all very personal things.

The second thing that we say is that if you do decide to drink, then we really advise that you limit yourself. We do recommend that you do stick to the one drink rule. And we do recommend that you make that a hard limit. One of the first things with drinking obviously is judgment. Asking yourself to make a drinking judgment call while you’re in the situation can be difficult, so it’s good to set some kind of parameter before you go in. Avoid the tendency to get caught up in the environment and get caught up in a rollicking, freewheeling good time where you’re going to do something you might regret later, even if it was a blast at the time.

TG: So keep it in the back of your head that this is a business situation.

DPS: Absolutely. And again, thinking about it ahead of time so you’re not making a hard choice in the moment. It can be really helpful to know that it’s okay to say no. Sometimes it’s really going to show good judgment in a situation where other people might appreciate it and be looking for you to demonstrate that good judgment yourself. If you’re in a situation where you’re not sure if it’s okay to drink or not, you can always defer and wait for your supervisor. If you’re playing host, you want to have some awareness of that, that people are going to be looking to you for cues and you want to provide those cues clearly. If you’re a guest in the situation, you want to pay attention to your host to get a sense of what’s appropriate.

TG: What should you keep in mind when the company is paying?

DPS: I’m probably not going to order the most expensive glass of wine in the house when I’m sitting around with my colleagues and they’re all having a beer. You definitely want to be aware of price. You don’t want to be excessive and you don’t want to step outside the range that’s been established by your colleagues.

TG: How obliged should one feel to attend company happy hours?

DPS: The era of the three drink lunch, as charming as the show Mad Men is, that’s in the past now. We really do live in a time where there isn’t an expectation that you drink. At the same time, it’s great to participate. It’s great to make an effort to get to know your colleagues, to get to know your coworkers, and if there’s a relatively low cost to you, making that effort to participate can really reap rewards. At the same time, you spend a lot of time with these people. You’re not obligated to turn them into your best friends. Sometimes having a little social distance makes for really effective colleagues.

TG: And finally, how should one deal with coworkers who have clearly had too much to drink?

DPS: You want to be really careful about correcting other people’s behavior. You rarely have standing. But at the same time, safety trumps etiquette. If someone has had too much to drink and is about to drive home, it’s okay to put aside that discretionary voice that your mother helped you cultivate for so long and help them get into a cab to get home safely. If you can help someone avoid an embarrassing situation later on. If you start to see someone who is behaving awkwardly and you know that a supervisor is going to be arriving soon, that might be a situation where you pull someone aside and address with language like “If this were me and our roles were reversed, I’d want you to say something.” Use language that’s caring, thoughtful and respectful.


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