Just because you have a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other, doesn't mean that you're not still at work. Casual off-site business events are an opportunity to burnish or burn down your in-office reputation.
"It may be a business social event, but it's still business, and business rules apply," says Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert and author of Greet, Eat, Tweet, a book about professional etiquette. "You don't want people to be talking about what you wore when you're back at work the next day."
Here are some tips about how to impress rather than offend at your next office outing.
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How to Dress
For both men and women, covering up is key. It should go without saying that short shorts and low-cut tops are out of the question for women, but men should be wary of showing too much leg or chest hair, too. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to see hairy guy legs sticking out of shorts," says John Heckers, a Denver-based executive coach. Stick to long, casual slacks and a polo shirt, Heckers says.
On a stiflingly hot, sunny afternoon, however, the idea of slacks might make men cringe. "It has to be a really casual event for men to wear shorts and flip-flops," says Pachter.
Men could opt for linen pants as a lighter-weight alternative to cotton slacks, says Lizandra Vega, a New York-based career and image coach and author of The Image of Success: Make a Great Impression and Land the Job you Want. The trade-off? "Sometimes, a man can be wearing linen pants that are perhaps more see-through than dress pants," she says. "Make sure to wear good undergarments."
For women, covering up one area of your body doesn't mean you can expose another. "Showing too much of a plunging back can be just as bad as too much front," says Vega. "When it starts to look sexy, that's the line between feeling comfortable and cool or seductive and trying to look that way."
There are some cases, however, that might seem like lose-lose scenarios. "One company I know had a retreat on a cruise," says Pachter. It's a situation that invites an issue -- you're not sure if you can break out a bathing suit in front of your coworkers, but you don't want to be the only one who doesn't. "If it's a pool party that's only a few hours, you can get away with not sunbathing," she says.
But for a company retreat where pool and beach time will be a must, experts suggest women stick to tankinis, one-pieces, or suits that cover the top of the thigh, and to bring a hat to cover up pool hair. Men should leave their Speedos at home, and stick to looser-fitting trunk-style suits. "Both men and women should choose bathing suits that don't over-emphasize any body parts," says Pachter.
Regardless of if you feel comfortable showing off your body or not, it's never appropriate to dress in a way that might make others uncomfortable around you. "To be overly casual can be uncomfortable for your fellow coworkers, and it can send a flirtatious message," says Vega.
Additional tips for longer trips include packing enough so you don't wear the same outfit twice. Clothes should fit well and be pressed, like they would at the office -- hang up your clothes instead of living out of your suitcase and pack an iron or wrinkle-releasing spray.
In general, you want to dress flexibly for casual out-of-office events. "There are outfits which can transform in an instant," says Heckers. The key is to have a supply of casual jackets and sweaters that can be worn over dressy tees and tanks, he says. "You can rarely be overdressed," he says. "Coming to a barbecue in nice slacks and a golf shirt when others are there in shorts and tee shirts may make you feel a bit out of place, but it isn't a bad message to send," says Heckers, "but you can go overboard." Know that "barbecue" should mean no jacket and tie.
How to Act
Once you have the right duds, you need to act appropriately. Casual events aren't really the place for business talk, so save the work-centric conversations for Monday. "Get off your BlackBerry and get on your game," says Erik Dowling, president of Fireball Network, a New York City networking training firm. "Take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the significant others, friends and family members of your coworkers and bosses," he says.
He also advises to be a good sport if there's any competition involved. "Whether it's golf, tennis, volleyball, or the sand-castle competition, be a team player," Dowling says. "A social outing isn't the place to kill your competition. Your job doesn't depend on your golf score, but it does depend on your ability to act like a professional whether you win or lose."
Don't take "casual" as an invitation to talk about anything and everything. Conversation no-nos encompass spreading gossip, talking about your summer fling, or throwing a few too many drinks back and letting the fact that you have a huge crush on one of your colleagues slip out. Limit your alcoholic intake -- and that of your date's -- to avert any career-ruining crises.
The rules of attire and etiquette at a casual business event aren't limited to just you, either. Talk to whomever you may be bringing as a guest, and set a few ground rules for them, too. Remember, how they dress and act is also a reflection on you and your sense of judgment.
Be aware that many companies will post photos from an event online -- to the company Facebook page, blog, or website. The impression you leave after a casual work outing could outlive the event itself.
Write to Kelly Eggers