Ah, but the sick lump of fear in your stomach tells you that you did – and now you have to go to work and cope with the fall-out. Lydia Stockdale and Katie Puckett report on how to make sure your Christmas party antics don’t ruin your career …

You wake up gripped by a nameless terror. It’s the morning after the office Christmas party, your head’s throbbing and your stomach’s churning – and not only from the copious quantities of booze you downed the night before. You can’t remember exactly what happened but you fear it was Something Very Bad Indeed.

Relax. People have been disgracing themselves at office parties since time began. And some, such as Andy Mountain, a director at QS Franklin + Andrews, have managed to hold down respectable jobs in construction.

“I once danced on the table at an office do,” Mountain admits. “I’d had a few drinks and wasn’t embarrassed at all, but people still take the mickey out of me five years later.”

The secret is to remember that everyone else was in a similarly festive mood and that whatever you did, someone else has probably done worse. Architect Robert Adam spent an entire Christmas holiday worrying about his first office party at a new firm. “I got completely plastered. I couldn’t remember anything and was very worried about what the partners thought. I worried about it all over Christmas. What I hadn’t realised was that the partners were completely pissed too – I’d been too drunk to notice that they were too drunk to notice.”

Even if you did offend someone senior, a timely apology can salvage the situation, as John Connolly, associate director at McBains Cooper, discovered when he was starting out as a surveyor. “At one Christmas party, I told the chief executive’s wife that she ‘scrubbed up well’. I’d meant it in a nice way, but it came out differently. The chief executive wasn’t happy and neither was his wife.

“The next day, it was suggested I call her to apologise. The phone call started awkwardly, but by the end I think she was pleased I’d called. When I spoke to the chief executive later, he did reprimand me, but making that call saved me from the worst of it.”

With all that goodwill flying about, you can usually get away with a bit more than you could on, say, a Monday in February. Building columnist Tony Bingham remembers one Christmas when two people – one of whom may or may not have been him – decided to make some amusing photocopies, a classic of the office indiscretion genre. “Party A sat on the photocopier and Party B lifted them on to it and pressed the copy button – but the glass broke,” says Bingham. Thankfully, nothing was said. “Everyone accepts it’s all in Christmas fun. You could say that they turned the other cheek.”

Flirting outrageously or getting carried away in the heat of the moment with a colleague may be the most common misdemeanour, but it’s the one nobody will admit to having made. Everyone, however, has a story to tell about “an acquaintance” who was caught in the office store cupboard with a close personal friend. “They’re all over the place,” confirms a human resources manager at a major QS, who often has to deal with the aftermath of drunken parties. “You find them on the floor in the corridors, everywhere.”

Paul Wilkinson, people director at contractor ROK, says if you and a colleague have made a public spectacle of yourselves, you can expect a quiet word from the boss: “If the rest of your team were laughing at you, it will affect your credibility and the way you work – and that is the company’s business.”

“Never apologise, never explain” is an excellent motto for morning-after damage limitation. But, as we have seen, an apology has its uses. And explanations sometimes can’t be avoided, as Gareth Broadrick, senior manager at recruitment firm Hays Property and Surveying, discovered one year.

“I’d only been at the company for six months when I fell asleep on the train on the way home from the office Christmas party. I was supposed to be staying at a friend’s house in Tunbridge Wells, but ended up in Dover. The last train back to London had gone, and I was kicked out of the station because it was closing. Then, it began to rain. The only place I could find shelter was one of those old red telephone boxes. I fell asleep, to be woken up at 4am by our fine constabulary.

“I caught the first train back to London and was at my desk for a few hours before anyone else arrived. I tried to carry on as though nothing had happened, even though I hadn’t washed and had lost my tie, but eventually someone pointed out I was wearing the same clothes. I had no choice but to relay the whole story. Everyone laughed – a lot.”

People may be laughing at you the next day, but it’s much worse if they’re laughing at you on the night. Chris Houchin, business development director at Bovis Lend Lease, recalls his initiation as a junior site engineer in west Wales. “I was a bit of a know-it-all,” he says. “As soon as we got to the pub, the singing in Welsh began. I couldn’t understand a word. Then, about three songs in, everyone looked at me and started laughing. It took me a while to realise they were singing about what a pain I was. It put me in my place.”

Then again, in vino veritas may not be such a bad thing. Capitalise on your colleagues’ inebriation to extract gossip and you’ll have bargaining power when it comes to concealing your secrets. Anyone partying with Steve McGuckin, Land Securities’ director of projects, should beware: his strategy is to stick to soft drinks for the first couple of hours. “That way, you remember what everyone else said but they can’t remember what you said and you have a good time, too.”

Not that he believes drunken indiscretions are always a bad thing: “At a party when I was in my twenties, I’d had a few and told someone what I thought of them. Did I regret it in the morning? Absolutely not!”

Your survival strategy

  1. Maintain an air of professionalism. Hold your head up high and act like you’ve nothing to be ashamed of, even if you’re inwardly cowering. You might convince other people, even if you don’t convince yourself.
  2. If you did something seriously damaging to your career, you’ll know soon enough. Apologise as soon as you get the chance and make it sincere.
  3. If you did end up in the stationery cupboard with a colleague, send them a straightforward email as soon as you get in. If you have had a drunken indiscretion, it’s better to contain it with grown-up diplomacy than let what happened come between you.
  4. Keep it in perspective. Take the view that what happened should remain within the context of high spirits. It’s Christmas, everyone was probably drunk, it’s no big deal.
  5. Don’t do denial. There’s nothing more undignified or more likely to prolong the teasing. Justifying your actions, blaming others or seeking retribution are all likely to backfire.
  6. Laugh it off. If you accept that what you did was silly but make it clear that you’re getting on with your work, then everyone else will, too. Plus, a sense of humour and a little humility are endearing traits and could help you win back friends you lost the night before.

And if all else fails … check out the thousands of new jobs listed at www.building4jobs.co.uk