Co-Workers Get Cozy at Holiday Parties

At this year's company holiday party, you probably won't see Mommy kissing Santa under the mistletoe — unless Mommy and Santa are the names of two of your co-workers.

A recent poll of singles found that the majority thinks there should be mistletoe at company holiday parties, while 17 percent say it's OK to kiss a co-worker and 8 percent advocate going gaga and mashing multiple colleagues.

"Where are they working? Because I want to work there," joked single woman Kristen Bloom, 32, of Baltimore.'s "vice president of romance," Trish McDermott, was taken aback at the answers to the online dating service's survey.

"I was a little surprised by the results," she said. "Many of us understand the implications of both office romance and improper behavior. Yet at the holiday party, some of that concern seems to go out the window."

For many people who plug away in corporate America, the year-end party is their one chance to let their hair down with co-workers.

"People tend to dress differently, the lights are lower, there is food and alcohol and music … all these reminders that you're not actually in the office," McDermott said. "We may find our co-workers more compelling and attractive in that situation."

The biggest numbers came in answer to the question of whether it's OK to flirt with a co-worker at the party: 57 percent of the 1,300 surveyed said yes.

"Mild flirtation is OK," said one 31-year-old, Washington, D.C., woman, who asked not to be identified and didn't participate in the survey. "But flirting with married people is crossing the line."

Of course, the term "flirting" means different things to different people. Friendliness might be perceived as flirtation, even if it's not intended that way.

"A great deal of flirting has nothing to do with romance or sex; it has to do with charming people into enjoying working with you and having a good, friendly relationship," McDermott said.

Still, it's unclear what the singles who responded to the survey had in mind, since what meant by "flirting" wasn't explained.

"It depends on your definition — I flirt with everybody all the time," said Bloom, when asked how she felt about flirting with co-workers. She suggests striking a balance.

"Have fun and be yourself, but certain lines shouldn't be crossed over unless you're looking for trouble," she said. "You have to maintain a professional reputation."

And that's exactly what business etiquette experts say, warning employees who are tempted to get amorous with an officemate to look before they leap.

"People have to be very mindful at a holiday party that how they conduct themselves is going to stay with them," said Pamela Holland, co-author of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move? "Just because it's now off-hours and there are festivities, don't let your guard down to believe it's not business-related."

In other words, it's difficult to shake the image of a co-worker fooling around with someone at the holiday party the next time that person is, say, doing a presentation. Holland advises against antics that could compromise credibility — including dressing in an overly provocative way.

"They won't take you as seriously. It will end up haunting you," Holland said. "Anything that is going to overshadow your judgment and have people remembering it more than your competence on the job is not a good thing."

Free-flowing booze at parties is often the primary culprit when employees get too wild.

"People drink too much, say things," said the D.C. woman, who is single. "Office parties are situations fraught with pitfalls."

Some firms avoid the potential minefield by holding alcohol-free luncheons or at-office gatherings.

Liquor or not, holiday parties aren't the time to test new waters in office etiquette.

"Just be mindful of your company's culture," Holland suggested. "Know yourself and know the people you're dealing with."

Savvy advice, considering that 23 percent of men and 14 percent of women have "morning-after" regrets, according to the survey.

McDermott said there's probably a simple explanation for the survey's results: desire for holiday romance.

"This is the time of year when there's a lot of pressure to be in a relationship," McDermott said. "Singles say Christmas is the most stressful time of year. That may explain some underlying, basic human need that plays out at the company party."