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How to Navigate Happy Hour with Co-Workers

Work happy hours can be difficult for people to handle professionally. There are so many things that can go wrong – drinking and a casual atmosphere can be a dangerous combination for your career. If they're handled with grace, however, happy hours can be a fruitful networking opportunity. Here are five ways you can make happy hours work for you:

1. Keep Networking in Mind
Happy hours with co-workers fall into a confusing place between professional and casual, but you should still consider it a networking opportunity. This holds particularly true if there are higher-ups coming along, or people from other departments you don't know well. Use happy hours as an opportunity to build a relationship with people you wish you knew better. If you have a particularly fruitful conversation, or have a reason to hope someone gets in touch with you, don't assume he or she will remember. Hand over one of your business cards so your colleague will be more likely to reach out the next day.

2. Don't Get Too Friendly
Even though you can (and should) allow yourself to embrace the happy hour's relaxed atmosphere, it should only be to a point. Remember, even though you're not in the office, you're still surrounded by your co-workers. All the usual rules about appropriate interactions apply. Even if your office allows workplace romance, avoid trying to spark something while people are drinking. Even if nothing comes of it, you can end up creating rumors that cast a dark cloud on your professional reputation.

3. Attend and Participate
If you're invited to a happy hour event with co-workers and not sure whether you should go or not, err on the side of attending. You don't have to go to every social event co-workers hold, but saying "no" too often can make you seem unfriendly, or not part of the team. This can be damaging to your career in many ways. According to Forbes, your co-workers and managers assuming you don't like them might be the best-case scenario. It's totally unfair, but the reality is people are going to wonder why you always turn them down – you don't want them coming to conclusions that can lead to nasty rumors. 

4. Eat Something
Happy hours, by their nature, create a tenuous situation for those who do decide to imbibe. Generally they fall between four to five hours after your most recent meal, which means you're drinking on an empty stomach. Even if you take care not to drink too much or too quickly, you can get drunk very quickly if you haven't had any food. Before you head out to the happy hour, eat a light meal or snack. Alternatively, you can order an appetizer at the bar, or even a full meal if it's late enough. Whatever you do, don't drink without eating anything, or you may end up getting tipsier than you'd like.

5. Know When to Leave
Once you're at your happy hour, make sure you're paying attention to the time. Although it's great to spend an hour or so hanging out with your co-workers, it's very easy to let the night go on too long. Try to keep your stay at happy hour to two hours maximum, so that you don't risk losing track of time and drinking the night away with your teammates. Similarly, know how to recognize red flags that signify that it's time to head out early. A happy hour with negative gossip, drinking games or dares is a happy hour that could damage your career: Separate yourself from the situation before it becomes a problem.

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