Beware the holiday party

November 30, 2007, 4:19 PM UTC

A few years ago, (well, to be truthful quite a few years ago), I was a young and bushy-headed fellow in a $150 suit, new to corporate life and amazed at its intricacies and freebees. About three or four weeks after I joined Planet Mambo, the holiday season descended on us and the cycle of parties celebrating the end of the year began.

The first of these took place at the old Park Sheraton Hotel on 55th and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. It was a place with a lot of history. The Jackie Gleason show, The Honeymooners, was filmed there, for instance, and I believe Albert Anastasia, one of the key players in Murder Inc., was killed in a barber’s chair there in the late 1950s. By the time my old corporation (which is now as dead as both Anastasia and Murder Inc.) had its party there, the place had gone somewhat to seed. But the ballroom downstairs was pretty and lit for maximum warmth, and there were plenty of noisy people and — a  new concept to me — free scotch.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I want you to think for a minute, particularly those of you who have suckled at the plastic corporate mammary for a while, the effect on a young man of all that free booze. It was Johnny Walker Red I favored back then. It was long before the days of snooty, peaty single-malt snobbykins. Red was fine with me. And here there were, bottles and bottles of it, and all of it… free! Free! I seized a tumbler and told the bartender to fill it up. Then I did it again. Around that time, platters of little fried things began making the rounds. I inhaled a bunch of those, too.

An hour into the bash, I have to relate, I believe I was as happy as I have ever been in my life. What a world! Free stuff everywhere! Drunken friends at every turn — for were these not my friends? Ah, how I loved them, each and every one, these smiling, yelling, sweating folks I had known for lo these many weeks. My buds! My pals!

Somewhere in there, I spotted the EVP of Marketing, whom I liked a lot and was only 12 levels above me on the food chain (as was just about everybody there but the guy who delivered the mail), talking in a dignified fashion to somebody in a gray suit.

“Burt!” I said, tearing across the room and throwing a friendly arm around his shoulder. “How’s it goin’, man? Isn’t this a great friggin’ party?”

“Stan,” said Burt, looking at me with a mixture of pity and fondness that I will never forget. “This is Al Potrazibi, the Chief Financial Officer from corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.”

“Hi, Al!” I yelled in his face. “How’s it goin’?”

“Fine,” said the cadaver standing before me. There then ensued a cold, weird silence that I now recognize as the sound of a career thumping to a halt as a gigantic mental filing cabinet is receiving a terminal entry.

“Well!” I said, drooling only slightly onto my shirtfront. “See you guys!”

I remember this incident now because 1) I survived it and 2) there was no reason I should have. The thing that saved me, in the end, was 1) Burt was a really good guy who had been known, in other venues, to tear off  his own chunk of fun now and then and 2) our corporation was divested not long after and the death-eaters from Pittsburgh lost sway.

This, of course, is only one of the many times I have disgraced myself in the line of duty at this time of year. I am not the only one. I have seen lawyers dancing with their ties around their heads. I have seen two accountants punching each other like enraged girls over their respective interpretations of some arcane aspect of GAAP. I have heard the head of ethics compliance going at it with his assistant in an empty office right next to the Boardroom. They were married, of course, although not to each other.

My point here is that in virtually each and every case, none of these people was helped by making a jerk out of themselves at the holiday party. People remember. A successful career is an act of self-mythology. You create a persona for Business. You groom and care for it over the years. They put you in a suit or outfit of some standardized kind to help make it easier on you. And then the holiday time comes and you blow it all up by showing your true self under the influence of a variety of uncontrolled substances. Take care. Beware. There will be free scotch, if you play things right, for a long, long time.

I will leave you with Bing’s Law on this subject: Always remain one drink behind.

Beyond that? Do not get naked. Do not put anything on your head. Do not fall down or throw up. Keep in mind that the party is not a break from business; it is, in fact, some of the most important business that you will do all year, not because you have an agenda at it, because that’s just plain dorky, but because it is in places where people get the right to appear informal that some of the nicest and most enduring relationships can be forged.

That long ago night, by the way? I ended up back at home on the floor of the bathroom, calling Ralph on the big white phone. Haven’t done that in a great long while, you know? And I’ll tell you what. I don’t miss it.