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Professional Primer: How to behave at happy hour

Written on Jul 31, 2020

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA content manager

Professional Primer is our series to help you navigate the tricky world of business etiquette. Read past posts online here.

When done well, happy hours are a great way for employees to relax and get to know each other outside of the office. But adding alcohol to any experience, especially at a work function, can potentially lead to embarrassing results and a bruised reputation. Tonya Tiggett, chief success strategist at Promoting University LLC, said one of the biggest mistakes people can make is thinking their behavior at the happy hour won’t reflect on them back in the office. Here are the ways to ensure your happy hour actions don’t become office gossip:

Avoid drinking too much – This is the cardinal rule of happy hours, but unfortunately people can fall victim to the relaxed environment and forget they are among coworkers. Tiggett suggested alternating a drink with a glass of water throughout the evening – and don’t feel obligated to drink, either.

Tonya Tiggett“It is absolutely acceptable to not drink and you owe no one an apology or a reason why,” she said. “A lot of people will not stand up for themselves or will give into the pressure. If someone says ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ or ‘Why are you drinking water?’ just simply thank them and say ‘I’m good for now, thanks for asking,’ or ‘Thanks for the offer, maybe later.’”

Know every office culture is different – Some offices might encourage their employees to relax and join in on the drinking fun as long as they remain responsible, and others will raise an eyebrow at drink number two. “It just depends on the crowd you’re with and the culture,” Tiggett said. If you’re new to the office and unsure what’s acceptable, take your cue from what the more senior employees are doing. That includes leaving happy hour with your reputation intact. “You should feel free to stay as long as you are having fun, and if you are strategic with your happy hour mingling, leave after you have made time to spend with people who you want to get to know better,” she said.

Put away your phone – It’s easy to fall into the trap of checking your phone for texts or scrolling through social media, but resist the urge. Use this time to engage with coworkers you don’t normally speak to and learn more about them. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for you to build a key network and relationships, and build some level of influence in the future by getting to know people personally,” she said. “This is your opportunity, and that personal time and clout you’re going to build will go miles in the future.”

Be careful what you say – “You’re going to have looser lips when you’re drinking, and when talking about a coworker or client you never know how that’s going to get back to them,” Tiggett said. “And when or if it gets back to them, do you want your name tied to what’s being said?” Along with avoiding office gossip, don’t bring up politics or religion, she advised. Emotions on these topics can run high and when combined with alcohol, an innocent conversation can quickly turn personal.