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The Not-So-Happy Happy Hour

09/30/2013 06:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

Despite the occasional "case of the Mondays," work isn't always a drag. Once you weed out the annoying coworkers who make you want to stick pins in your eyes, you can usually find a couple of good people to hang out with -- grab a morning coffee, eat lunch, and even get together outside of work.

At work, socializing tends to be more conservative, as compared to if you and some friends were having a barbecue at your house. However, one aspect of workplace socializing that tends to be a grey area of proper behavior is the office happy hour.

Office happy hours are designed to create camaraderie amongst the team, but can also be a dangerous breeding ground for social snafus. During a happy hour, some coworkers forget they are still surrounded by managers or other colleagues, not their personal friends.

So before you head out to that next office happy hour, check out these three tips on how to put the happy back into happy hour.

Tip#1: Know Your Limit

I don't care if you work at the hottest bar in Las Vegas where your job is to get wild and wasted 24/7, there is always going to be a level of professionalism that even the craziest party animal shouldn't cross at a work function. I'm not saying you can't have fun, but acting properly at office events is not about being awkward or boring, it's about not becoming the topic of conversation at the water cooler the next day... or needing someone to drive you home because your face has been planted (and drooling) on the bar for an hour.

Everyone has their own alcohol consumption threshold, which is why it's absolutely crucial to know your limit and, more importantly, stick to it! This is not a time to show off how many shots you can do before you pass out. People tend to forget that it's still a work function and whether you like it or not, you are under the judging eyes of your colleagues. Some stick-in-the-mud may even report you to HR if you do something they consider inappropriate while three sheets to the wind on T.G.I. Friday's "Wings and Things" special. In addition, the last thing you need is to have that 19-year-old intern drive you home because all he had was bar mix and diet soda. Embarrassing!

Tip #2: Don't Only Discuss Work

Without fail, you'll attend an office happy hour where you'll meet someone who can't stop talking about work. Of course you can discuss general work topics. "You were pretty swamped today. Everything all right?" A happy hour is also a great time to give kudos to a colleague on a job well done. "Walter, you really knocked it out of the park today with that presentation! Let me buy a drink." However, don't use the office happy hour as an opportunity to harp on an issue that went wrong or discuss the marketing strategies for next quarter. You'll have plenty of time to do that at the office.

The office happy hour is a chance to leave the worries and stress of the office behind and get to know your colleagues on a more personal level. No one wants to talk shop all the time, so use the happy hour as the time to mingle -- talk about family, movies, sports, whatever. Choose topics that show you have a personality and are not a corporate drone. Refrain from touchy subjects like religion, politics, and sexual orientation, and definitely don't comment on the status of someone's pregnancy body.

Tip #3: Don't Be a Wallflower

As I mentioned in the tip above, the office happy hour is a great way to learn more about colleagues on non-work level. However, this doesn't work if you sit back in your chair, with your nose buried in your smartphone, acting -- and looking -- like you can't wait for the event to end. If you don't want to be there, don't go. This isn't high school -- you don't get credit just for showing up. Instead, take advantage of talking to someone you rarely encounter at work. Or better yet, talk to your boss more openly. You might discover there is a real person behind that tough exterior.

Happy hour is a great way to network and learn about what your coworkers are up to (both in and out of the office). Chances are, you will be pleasantly surprised about how fun someone is when they're not focused on deadlines or running to meetings.

I delve a lot more into the best ways to navigate the minefield of office life in my new book "Reply All...And Other Ways to Tank Your Career".