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Phoenix Forward

Can an office potluck derail your career?

Make socializing the goal of potlucks.

You know it's coming. Even though it's days away, you feel the anxiety rising. The office potluck — whether you love it or hate it, it can be stressful.

Known as a way of connecting co-workers, this employee party may be seen by staff as another way to be judged at work. Donna Wyatt, PhD, a human resources instructor in the University of Phoenix MBA program and human resources manager with 30 years of experience, agrees. "For people who can't cook, or for the person with little time or money," she says, "potlucks can produce anxiety." Here are a few tips to have more fun and less anxiety at your next potluck.

1. Join in.

Not participating can create the wrong impression among your co-workers, according to Wyatt. "People will make up reasons about why a person isn't participating," she says. "The grapevine gets going and worst-case, it can lead to alienation of that person from the team."

Don't let food allergies or special diets prevent you from being a part of the team. Instead, bring a dish that you can eat and share, and enjoy socializing.

2. Avoid last-minute shopping.

Since planning reduces stress, says Wyatt, set a reminder on your phone or computer to shop for ingredients. For those who don't have time or don't like to cook, Wyatt suggests that picking up a prepared dish can be a real stress-reliever, with one caveat: Don't do it if the office expectation is that everyone is requested to bring a dish they made themselves.

3. Don't mooch.

Being labeled as the office freeloader, by not chipping in but enjoying coworkers' offerings anyway, is not a smart way to sell yourself to your teammates. Wyatt explains, "It may not influence their career, but co-workers notice, and people who mooch could be labeled bad team players."

4. Stop competing.

Office parties are a great place to show off your cooking skills, just so long as you're not too serious about it. "If you're trying to outdo your co-worker, then it can signal a lack of teamwork and create unnecessary stress. If you want friendly competition, keep it fun — like a cook-off — and get everyone to participate and vote."

5. Don't judge — at least not out loud.

People with poor cooking skills may be nervous about sharing their dish, explains Wyatt. Whether you try their chow or not, don't complain to co-workers about how bad someone's dish is — if you're caught, you could be labeled as the office gossip.

"Office potlucks bring out the good and bad aspects of people that they don't usually reveal at work. The best thing an organization can do is to make socializing the goal of potlucks," notes Wyatt. "Include team-building games and allow the team to connect and get away from unnecessary judgments."

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