Beware of Your Holiday Plus-One

A third of companies will invite employees to bring a guest. Choose wisely.

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The tales may just be urban legend: the executive's wife who had too much to drink and ended up getting sick in the bathroom. Or the new hotshot analyst who brought a new date who ended up flirting with the boss.

But these stories, whether you've witnessed them or just heard about them, point to a larger issue: whom you invite to be by your side at a company function is often an afterthought. But it's actually an important decision that reflects back on you. It allows colleagues and top brass alike to see whom you associate with outside of work and provides insight into your personal life. "What your date or spouse wears, and how that person acts, is just as important as what you wear and how you act," notes Maralee McKee, an etiquette expert in Florida.

Whom you invite to be by your side at a company function reflects back on you.

About 30% of companies surveyed by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas said they're allowing plus-ones to attend this year, down from 43% in 2016. If your company is among those, the choice to invite someone isn't always clear cut. Bring a person you've been dating for only two months, and risk him or her feeling uncomfortable and saying an off-color joke that reflects poorly on you. Tell your spouse it isn't a plus-one event, only for him or her to find out other people did bring significant others, and get ready for weeks of silent treatment or a barrage of questions about why you aren't proud to be seen with him or her.

Create your objective.

Part of what makes holiday party dates at company events go sour is that employees don't ask themselves what they want out of the evening. "If you're brand new to the company, you may be wanting to spend more casual time with your team," says Jane Scudder, a leadership and personal development coach in Chicago. "If you've been at the company for a while and are just looking to have a good time, that's a different objective."

Thus, if you really want to connect with an executive you haven't spent a lot of time with, it probably isn't the time to focus on showing your new partner the time of his or her life.

Gather intel.

While most company holiday party invitations will say if guests are invited, sometimes it isn't in the fine print. In that case, pros say it's best to ask your colleagues if he or she is planning on bringing a date. If you get the sense it's going to be unusual to bring someone along, skip it. On the other hand, if everyone seems to be bringing a plus-one and you don't have a reliable date, it's still better to go stag (particularly if your objectives focus on getting to know colleagues better) than to bring someone you may not know that well.

Prep your date.

Many people woo a plus-one with talk of free food, flowing drinks, or the chance to see a spectacular venue. Instead, prep your plus-one by telling him or her about some of the people he or she may meet: your closest colleagues, your boss, the executive assistant who has been around for 40 years. Of course, there's a fine line here, and you don't want to go into information overload, nor wait until you're walking into the soiree to tell your date these details. "People appreciate a bit of a heads-up," Scudder says. "Most dates understand this is a work thing, so you can help them not put their foot in their mouth."

Your prep also includes telling them what topics to avoid-which could be anything from the company's stalled merger to your upcoming anniversary getaway, if you know someone you're going to talk to is going through a divorce. The clearer you are about what should and shouldn't be discussed, the better.

Encourage them to mingle.

You may have initiated the outing, but that doesn't mean he or she should stand by your side the entire evening. If anything, the opposite can be a boon. At a recent company holiday party, Josh's wife randomly struck up a conversation with another spouse she met in the buffet line while Josh was at the bar. She turned out to be the wife of a managing partner at the firm whom Josh had hoped to get to know better. He had that opportunity when he wandered over to find his wife at the same time the managing partner came over to his wife. "We got to talk casually because our wives already had done the hard part of introductions," Josh says.

For more holiday party prep, click here.

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