(LifeWire) -- As corporate America prepares to wrap up another year of doing business, office holiday parties loom large and so do the horror stories of parties past.
Showing off a few dance floor moves is one thing, says Susan RoAne, a business networking consultant and author of "How to Work a Room: Your Essential Guide to Savvy Socializing," but if you care about professional credibility, "you don't want to look like you could be in the Badda-Bing Club."
RoAne offered a cautionary tale from a colleague, a California psychologist, who attended a health care industry holiday party packed with young employees writhing on the dance floor.
"She and the chief financial officer sat there mesmerized (watching) the people dancing," says RoAne. "Then she asked the CFO, 'Aren't you going to dance?' He said, 'I'm very glad they aren't in my department.' It was not lighthearted. This guy was ticked off."
Mixing business and pleasure
The office holiday party is typically a morale-boosting, team-building experience, and a company's reward to its employees. It can also be a great chance to "get valuable face time with senior management" and "make a positive impression on the other influential people in your workplace," says Marc Cenedella, president and CEO of TheLadders.com, a job search engine.
But it can also be an opportunity for trouble.
We know how we're supposed to act at work, says Liz Ryan, a Boulder, Colorado-based expert on the post-millennium workplace, but the office party's blurring of business and pleasure causes confusion.
"Socializing in a business context is a job skill, but it's never taught," Ryan says. "Companies don't hold seminars on the subject."
Add to this the company party's "one night only" pressures -- the rare opportunity to cut loose, forge new relationships, network with brass. "Often, we think a little alcohol will help," says Ryan. "But a little goes a long way."
Sure enough: In a survey conducted by TheLadders.com, 79 percent of executives said employees' top gaffe at office parties is overindulging in alcohol.
From party animal to pink slip
Some trip-ups, while awkward or mortifying, are essentially harmless. When WorldWIT, Ryan's professional women's networking organization, polled its 40,000 members about office party behavior, respondents listed drinking too much, forgetting a colleague's name, brownnosing upper management, becoming romantically involved with a colleague and gossiping as the top behaviors they regret.
Such actions may cost you a little watercooler credibility, but they likely won't harm your career in the long term, says Ryan, as long as you take control of the situation in the light of day: "Send a group e-mail to those you may have offended, along the lines of, 'It was such a great party that I got a little out of hand. Please forgive me.' "
And don't relapse. Remember that you're "a three-dimensional version of your résumé," says Ryan. "You don't want your boss thinking, 'This isn't someone I can send to a trade show or a convention.' "
Bigger missteps -- including brawls, damage to company property and taboo sexual entanglements -- can mean bigger repercussions.
And in this era of binding codes of corporate conduct and anti-harassment policies, a formal reprimand or even a pink slip may be the least of an employee's worries: Such serious line-crossing may put the company at risk of litigation.
Six tips for avoiding office party trip-ups
Ryan offers some advice on surviving the office party with your dignity (and job) intact.
• Pace your drinking -- or don't drink, period. Booze doesn't give you license to do anything that wouldn't be appropriate at the office between 9 and 5.
• Don't hit on, and don't hit up: Don't use the party to hit on a co-worker (if things go badly, you'll live with awkwardness daily) or to hit up your boss for a promotion or raise (socializing at the event is fine, but save requests for the appropriate forum).
• Eat before you go. Don't assume you'll get enough ballast from whatever's served at the event.
• Photos live on. Don't dance yourself into a sweaty mess or do anything else you'd cringe to relive in photo form.
• Leave before it's obvious that you should. No one will remember that you left early, but they will remember you asleep on the coats. The top brass are usually long gone by mid-evening. Follow their example.
• Can't trust yourself to get through the party without a misstep? Don't go.
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. E. Bougerol is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.
All About Entertaining