How to Throw a Dinner Party… for Work Purposes

How to Throw a Dinner Party... And Invite Your Boss | CorporetteWhat are the rules regarding dinner parties — and do they change if you’re inviting a boss or an existing or potential client? Reader M wonders…

Idea for a post/thread during the holiday season: what is the modern-day dinner party, and how can it positively/negatively affect your career? I’ve had a couple situations where I’ve thrown dinner parties for older colleagues or bosses, and I’m afraid that I don’t really know the all the “rules.” Is there still a stand-around cocktail and appetizer time when your party is work-related? Do I need to have all the food done by the time guests arrive, or can I still continue to cook a bit? What do I need to wear – jeans and a sweater, or do I need to upgrade to business casual? I’m specifically talking about smallish (6-12 people) dinner parties where a boss, partner, or existing/potential client is on the invite list.

I’d love to discuss the best way to do this for working women who don’t necessarily have a ton of time to cook or clean, and how I can portray myself, my home, and my family in a positive and professional way (that still stays true to who I am).

Wow. We’ve talked about what to wear to your boss’s holiday party, as well as what to talk about at parties, but we’ve never talked about throwing your own dinner party for your boss and clients.  I can honestly say that I have NO idea on the rules here, and am fascinated to hear what the readers say. Having lived in small NYC apartments for the majority of my adult life — and being, personally, about as far from Martha Stewart as you can get in the kitchen — I can say that on the rare occasions I’ve thrown a dinner party, it’s been with friends close enough that we could all laugh about it when the kitchen catches fire and we order pizza (should it happen, which, knock on wood, it hasn’t… so far).  Having to cook for a boss or a client sounds like my own private version of hell.  (Weirdly enough, though, we have thought about having my husband’s boss over for dinner with her husband, but just the four of us.  I can’t find the right words to explain why this is so different in my mind than the prospect of inviting my own boss over, for a dinner party, but it really is — something about not wanting my boss to see me as just a good little wifey, perhaps?) 

Poking around the web, the folks at Slate seem to think it’s a breach of etiquette for an employee to invite a boss to a dinner party (which I can see — it’s a big time commitment, and the other guests may or may not be people the boss wants to spend time with), while an Oklahoma-based site called Prairie Hive thinks you’ll get “bonus points” if you’re up for a promotion and invite the boss.

I’m really curious to hear what readers say here.  What are the rules for a dinner party?  Do you think that throwing dinner parties are a good way to get to know coworkers and clients, or that they’re best avoided unless they’re catered?  Does anyone think that domestic skills (such as cooking, hostessing, and having a clean/well-decorated home) are things that should be downplayed in a professional capacity unless those skills are related to your job?  

Pictured: Table Settings, originally uploaded to Flickr by prettywar-stl.

Comments

  1. Preliminary Issue :

    I cannot think of a more “know your workplace” post than this one. I’d suggest we’d all post our professional area and size of workplace (and any other unique factors) as the first sentence in replies.

    Crafting my reply – to be out shortly.

  2. The Skirt :

    Can anyone recommend shirts to wear with The Skirt that is Black colorblocked with grey (link to follow). I want to pull the plug but want to make sure I am not buying a one outfit skirt.)

  3. Sydney Bristow :

    I’ve never been in a position to throw a dinner party for work purposes. It makes me want to watch Bewitched though because Samantha regularly had Darren’s boss Larry Tate and his wife and clients over for dinner. If it helps, she always wore gorgeous dresses at the time. The fact that she only had to wiggle her nose for everything to be prepared is probably not helpful at all. :-)

  4. wildkitten :
    • oh no, now YOU are torturing me TOO??? GAH!

      ;o) that is cute, a little too much pink for me, but i do love the full skirts. Actually, I was showing NOLA some dresses and then she saw some other ones. Honestly, I really want to buy all the dresses, but I really can’t afford them!! but I keep torturing myself by looking!! It is so bad. Need someone to smack some sense into me ;o)

    • OMG that dress is adorable! Yeah, zora was sending me links for dresses that she liked (some of them REALLY cute) since I was sick and bored.

  5. Diana Barry :

    Definitely know your office. I would NEVER invite my boss over for a dinner party, but OTOH my parents hosted their office holiday party for several years.

    We just had a work dinner at a partner’s house and they did several “never do this” things, like serving beef when there were multiple vegetarians, the seating was weird, it went on too long, etc. Plus their bathroom door had no lock! Very odd.

    • ….I don’t think my bathroom door has a lock. Is this actually weird? I’ve never thought about it. I just assume that if the door is closed, someone must be in there!

      • Diana Barry :

        In an area with older houses, it is essential to have a lock. The door won’t close otherwise!

      • The bedrooms in our flat don’t have locks which strikes me as weird but the bathroom definitely does.

      • Honestly it causes me anxiety when I go to the bathroom and there’s no lock. I would definitely always put a lock on a door, even a flimsy one, to make people feel comfortable. You should also always have a plunger handy in a guest bathroom to make people feel comfortable (in case something happens…) and room spray is also appreciated.

        • While we are getting into bathroom particulars, if your bathroom is next to your dining room, it would be nice to offer guests an alternative if possible so they don’t feel like everyone hears everything they are doing (and so everyone does not, in fact, hear everything).

        • And a hand towel that is actually a towel and not a “guest towel” that doesn’t absorb water. Tissues are also a nice addition.

  6. I’d stay away from inviting bosses/clients over, lest you have to deal with the comment I did after I had my boss over: “Well, we’re clearly paying you too much if this is where you live.” sigh…

    • Anonymous :

      Private equity, smaller East Coast city. I haven’t hosted a dinner party (have had my boss and others over at an open house), but I have been to one at my boss’s house. We had informal cocktail hour in her kitchen and then plated dinner in her dining room. Food was from a local gourmet shop.

  7. Okay, so even if you would shy away from having a partner (or other boss-type person) over, what about a current or potential client?

    • Never, unless you were already best buds. If I wanted to do something with a current or potential client, I would take them out to lunch or dinner at a restaurant, or something along those lines.

  8. Mid-size law, senior assoc., in the South. While I wouldn’t necessarily invite my supervisor given our rather formal relationship, I have (and will do so again) invited/entertained colleagues that are both senior and junior to me. Mostly casual, cookout at the house type gatherings. It’s fairly common for our office to have attorneys socialize outside the office and to see each other on the community-fundraiser or gala circuit. So people don’t pay as much attention to “rank” We also have a lot of younger partners so that helps.
    DH and I like to entertain so we are trying to do it more. We find that if we keep in the habit, it’s pretty easy to pull off. I’d love to do some formal dinners too.

  9. Senior Attorney :

    I’d say don’t do it unless you love it and are awesome at it. Some people are great entertainers and some aren’t. If you are one of the former, by all means let your Martha flag fly and impress the boss and clients with your awesomeness.

    If there is even a small chance it will not go fabulously, then I say stick to peers and friends.

  10. Oh man, I agree with many of the others that I would never, ever do this. But if I had to, I think I would order the food out (maybe platters from a gourmet cheese/meat shop) and get a bunch of wine on recommendation from a good wine shop, and call it good. And have the house professionally cleaned earlier that day.

    But there is definitely something that makes me cringe about being a good domestic wifey in front of my boss. Not to mention my corgi jumping on everyone…

    • Yes, I agree that I would never do this. Just too fraught with possibilities for things going wrong. But I have been to home parties for professional contacts/clients, and the successful ones were all catered with professional catering staff on hand to pass food, refresh glasses, etc. If I were ever to host a party like this, that is what I would do.

    • All these responses kind of make me . . . sad. I love dinner parties! So much more so than dinners at restaurants. This is my favorite way to get to know new people, and they really strengthen my connections with people. Lingering over a few bottles of wine, discussing the important topics of the day; I just don’t think you can find a better way to get to know someone and cement a relationship in a professional way.

      I choose to believe that a tasteful, well-run party would be an amazing way to network with new or existing clients.

      • I love dinner parties too and we host them pretty frequently. But. I’d rather be in a midnight fire at sea than invite my boss to dinner at my house.

      • I too love throwing dinner parties and have had my colleagues, including my boss, over several times. I think it depends the most on the person hosting the party, if you’re comfortable entertaining and having people in your home, that will translate into people being comfortable in your home. If it isn’t your normal thing and you feel anxious/uncomfortable, that would probably translate to guests too. In my experience it has always been a positive to get out of the formal work environment and interact as people!

  11. I love to cook and entertain and would do this (not with my current boss, but yes given that the relationship I had with the coworker was amenable to this type of thing).

    I am curious… do most of your SOs not help you cook (if they’re home)? There’s no such thing as a meal being made while my SO is home and he not participating. Therefore, I wouldn’t feel like a little “wifey”, I don’t think.

    So since you asked for suggestions…

    -I wouldn’t even consider doing it on a workday, unless you know your guests will be willing to eat very late. There’s no way to prepare a decently impressive meal in 1-2 hours (unless you planned ahead and prepared things in advance)

    -Make a schedule, down to the half hour. Work backwards from when you want to serve dinner, and take into account how long each step of a dish will take, how many dishes can fit in your oven at once (and their temperatures) and what can be prepared in advance. Cooking parts or all of a dish in advance will save you so much stress.

    -Following the above, have all of your serving dishes out and labeled, so when something is done cooking you’re not scrambling.

    -Make sure days in advance that you’re thawing/marinating necessary things.

    -Maybe this is just me, but have a semblence of a theme? Even if it’s just “American.” Unless your house always looks impeccably decorated, spruce it up a bit

    -Get fresh flowers

    -Make sure there is plenty of wine and other beverages. Make it easy for guests to serve themselves during cocktail hour, and remember to fill guests’ glasses during dinner (or again, make it easy for them to serve themselves.

    -If your table is large enough, set all dishes on it. If not, set them on a nearby table. Don’t make people serve themselves from the kitchen.

    -Finally, remember to have some kind of dessert and coffee/tea to accompany it.

    • I just read back through this and realized that it has a tinge of snootyness. It was really just me jotting ideas quickly but even so, arggggggh.

    • Madeleine :

      +1. If it’s your husband’s boss over, you cook so he can socialize more. So if it’s your boss, shouldn’t DH cook?

    • Diana Barry :

      My husband doesn’t cook. He makes an OK sous chef but I have to tell him what to do. Between that and all our kids, you can bet we’d take work people out to dinner 100 times before having them over.

    • This is some of the best advice I’ve ever seen. I’m in the Foreign Service so the work circle really does become the social circle. Whether or not to invite the boss totally depends on the situation. My first post, at my very first dinner party ever, things were totally behind schedule and my boss (pretty high up) dug right in and helped me skewer the beef for the beef satay appetizer (I was SOOOO grateful to her, and never made the same mistake again). However, I would never invite my current bosses over, but this is more of a personality rather than a professionalism issue.

      My three additions to Kathryn’s EXCELLENT suggestions:
      ~ Prepare dessert the day before (you can spend no more than 5 minutes getting it ready in between dinner and serving it)
      ~Make sure the appetizer and drinks are ready before people arrive (always have drinks even if you don’t drink and you’re offering soda and juice). You can finish up cooking stuff and putting things into serving dishes IF people have food, drinks, and an SO or close friend to act as host while you put the final touches on dinner.
      ~Use the half-hour plan Kathryn made, but plan to have everything done 20 minutes early. Something will go wrong and you will need extra time.

      I disagree about having people over on a workday. If you clean the house, set the table, make dessert the night before, and use a crock pot for your main dish, you can do it (you may want to leave work an hour early).

  12. One of my co-worker invited bunch of us to his apartment for co**ktails, he loves making fancy drinks as a hobby. For dinner he was planning to order from outside, but he knows I love to cook and so we briefly discussed beforehand and I offered to bring two main course dishes and dessert.
    All these co-workers were at my level or junior (no superiors). He ordered a few additional items and side dishes from a resteraunt (I asked him to do it as backup). My dishes were a big hit, people asked for doggy bags to take home leftovers and everything was finished.

    Hopefully I haven’t tarnished my professional image. I am usually known as hard core, nerdy, technical and very demanding at times, so few were definitely surprised at my homely skills. These are group of co-workers I have socialized outside of work on a regular basis involving running/happy hour/movies so I hope this wasn’t too bad.

    • If they like your food so much they wanted to take it home, they were probably just very impressed. Maybe it was nice for them to see your personal side in addition to your hardcore/technical side. Also, it was your male coworkers party, and he was contibuting to the “domestic” stuff as well with his cocktails.

  13. Done that :

    Work dinners were very common where I grew up, so I learned a few lessonst aht have worked well when I have work people over:
    – Something pre-made and baked is easier. You can make a lasagna many days ahead, freeze it, and then just stick it in the oven while you prepare the salad and get ready. You can even have one vegeterian and one meat.
    – Have a tray of cheeses, spreads, cold cuts out already. Set appetizer dishes and napkins next to them so everyone can take them. People may not arrive together, so this helps.
    – Offer wine, beer, simple cocktails when people arrive. Extra points if you have an area on a table with the stuff ready so people can make their own drinks after you make the first couple. Just no ugly coke bottles, put them in a jar, jug or something.
    – It is ok to do LIGHT cooking, like taking something out of the oven or adding dressing to the salad. But involved cooking (like washing and cutting the salad veggies) is annoying.
    – Set a pretty table, but not over the top. No need to go buy real-silver silverware. But do have all forks, knives, etc match (or look purposefully unmatched if you are going for that look).
    – Easy dessert, like cookies or cake that requires no extra preparation.
    – Have wine and another non-alcoholic drink ready, even though people usually bring some.
    – Noncontroversial quiet music in the backgroud, like 60s/70s. Better for it to be hard to hear than too loud.
    Make it casual, but dress a little nicer than jeans. Think skirt and sweater. RELAX and everyone will calm down too. Things go wrong, people drop things. It is fine. If you look comfortable asking boss to hand you that glass, they will be too. Your house = you are the boss.

  14. I’ve never been to a person’s home for a work event, but living/working in NYC/NYC suburbs it just doesn’t seem like something people do around here.
    That being said – if I ever were to do something like this I’d probably hire help. One of my husband’s colleagues had a holiday party for friends/close co-workers that they catered and he remarked on how nice it was not to have to make drinks/pass food/get everything ready/etc.

  15. Interrobanged :

    Hmm. I don’t know if this is the same thing, but every year I throw a huge holiday cocktail party. It is largely work-related in that all of the guests are lawyers and their spouses (if they bring spouses). Only during the last two years have I begun inviting my immediate superior at work (Senior VP). He has attended – one with wife, once without – and I welcomed him like I would any other guest, showed him where the booze and food was, and left him to his own devices. It was great, he had a good time, and I was glad to be able to invite him to my house and share some holiday cheer with him. A cocktail party, however, is less formal than a sit-down dinner.

    When I was clerking for a judge (state court of appeals), my co-clerk and I invited the judge and his wife over to my house for a joint dinner. It was near the end of our one-year terms and we wanted to thank him for being such a great judge. It was not awkward at all. We had a short cocktail hour with drinks and a cheese plate, sat down to salad, then the main course and sides, and then dessert. It sounds fancier than it was, I think.

    I really think this is a “know your boss” and “know your workplace” question. There are definitely guys at my old firm I would never have considered inviting over in a million years. And there are guys at my old firm that have been regulars at my holiday party for ages. It’s all about your rapport with the person.

  16. As a boss, I’ve never been to a party thrown by one of my direct reports that I didn’t completely enjoy and appreciate.

  17. Since no one else has brought it up, I’d say the single most important thing is having a partner who’s on the same page as you about your personal brand of hospitality, and what kind of party you’re having, and is able to step up without strain to do his or her share of the hosting. I’d try this out with friends and family, get comfortable with a routine, including food purchasing/ production and whatever clean-up/ decorative stuff you may want, and then extend to professional peers, bosses and clients.

    I was thrown into the deep end on this early in my marriage, albeit in a good way. My husband is in the same field, 10 years older and at the time, a peer to most of my professional ‘seniors’. He was already confidently and regularly entertaining these folks at home when we got married, and I do consider myself super-lucky to have acquired his confidence, along with access to a lot of useful contacts, and a bit later on, the ability to invite my bosses and clients home for a nice meal and an interesting mix of other guests.

    So for many years now, Saturday evening is a standing date for us to have people over if we are not traveling. I look after most of the prep now, since I really enjoy the routine of shopping in the morning and cooking in the afternoon, and then sharing a meal with friends (including professional ones), and maybe a parent, or sibling or two. There have been many occasions when my availability doesn’t work out so nicely during the day – meetings, calls, delayed flights, emergencies of various sorts – and we’ve just picked up pizza and opened up good wine to go with it. Sometimes a boss or an important client is a guest at these not-so-polished meals, but I’ve made my peace with it and will generally be ok that if both hubby and I are on hand, and fully present, we’ll adequately keep the ball rolling and ensure that most of our guests have a reasonably enjoyable evening.

  18. Little Red :

    DC metro area at a government contractor with a lot of science nerd types

    The first time I socialized outside of work with co-workers was when my immediate supervisor invited me to his Halloween party thirteen years ago. Needless to say, I’ve been to many Halloween and birthday parties at his home since then. Also, in the past, I’ve thrown a not-so-formal dinner party in early summer where I’ve invited him and a few co-workers. My co-workers invite me to their home for the Christmas Open House and other events such as vow renewals/birthdays/weddings/etc. So in my office, some of us definitely socialize outside of work at each others homes. Heck, some of us are FB friends with each other.

  19. So, back in the “Mad Men” era, I was working in an IT group with nine or ten others, all of us in our twenties, married but no kids. We socialized together a lot and there was a fair amount of alcohol consumed. We had a supervisor about five years older than we were, also married, no kids, and he was managed by a conservative Southerner, married with a few young kids. We always invited both of them and their wives to our parties, but “Supervisor” seldom joined us and “Manager” never did.

    The first winter after my husband and I married, we invited the group to a late Sunday afternoon buffet so they could all see our new apartment. For whatever reason, “Manager” and his wife accepted our invitation, perhaps thinking it would be a less boozy party given the time and day. My best friend, Joan, offered to come early and help as her husband was out of town.

    At exactly the appointed time, or a few minutes earlier, the door bell rang and I assumed it was Joan arriving. I don’t remember what DH was doing, but I was almost ready, so I answered the door in nylons, heels, bra and half-slip. Um……….not Joan. The look on “Manager’s” face (and his wife’s) was priceless.

  20. My office has a casual holiday party each year hosted at one of the employees’ homes. This year is my year. Thankfully, my office is pretty laid back, and I think everyone would be perfectly fine if I just did pizza and beer.

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