Ah, summer. The chance to relax, take a nice vacation, maybe even wear short sleeves and comfy sandals to work.

And make a complete dolt of yourself at the company picnic or barbecue.

Many young workers, in their excitement at the thought of getting drunk and chowing down at their employer's expense, fail to realize that office parties aren't really parties. Just because you're off the clock doesn't mean you're off your boss's radar. How you conduct yourself at "business social" gatherings can have long-term effects on your career.

Here are a few do's and don'ts to help you have a good time at company picnics, golf outings and pool parties without drowning your chance for promotion:

* Don't skip the get-together. Even if you are painfully shy, it's best to make at least a brief appearance, munch on some chips and salsa, and chat with a few people. If you never go to any of the office parties, you not only miss out on opportunities to get to know your co-workers better, but you also could get a reputation as an unfriendly snob. In other words, not the "team player" that higher-ups consider for promotions.

* Don't drink too much. Before the party, investigate your company's policy about drinking alcohol at work-related events. Check your company handbook. If there are no official guidelines, stick with one or two drinks. Even if you know you can handle more, it just doesn't look good if you are slamming back a shot of Maker's Mark every 15 minutes. (Besides, you're hogging the good bourbon.)

It can be pretty hard to shake a reputation as a problem drinker, even after only one embarrassing incident. You could lead the company's sales force for six consecutive years and still be remembered mainly as the guy who danced on a wobbly picnic table singing "Radar Love."

If you don't think you can control yourself, there's no shame in sticking with the lemonade.

* Do keep your hands to yourself. That cutie you made out with in the mailroom could be your future boss. Or your current boss's 16-year-old son.

Even among peers, one person's idea of harmless flirting can be another's expensive sexual harassment suit. If you wouldn't say it in front of the office water cooler, don't say it in front of the company-sponsored open bar.

If things do get out of hand, be respectful and discreet about it afterward. You could be sharing a cubicle wall with your little dalliance for years to come.

* Don't dress too casually. These events are more high-school reunion than family reunion. You're there to see and be seen in a good light. In his classic "Dress for Success" book series, John T. Molloy recommends a conservative approach. Polo shirts and blouses with khakis are best. No tank tops or flip-flops. Thongs of either variety are inappropriate.

* Don't gossip indiscriminately. While these events can be a great way to find out about promotions and changes that could affect your career, be careful what you say about other people. That cutting criticism of your boss and co-workers, no matter how valid, that you shared with Anne from accounting could easily make it back to them. Assume it will and keep your mouth shut. Surely you can find something else to talk about.

* Do ask how many guests you can bring. Some parties are for employees only. Others are open to spouses, dates and children. If the party invitation or announcement doesn't specify, ask first.

Sometimes even if the announcement says the party is open to family members and friends, most people come alone. Ask your co-workers who they are planning to bring, if anyone.

* Do mingle. If you spend all of your time goofing off with your usual office buddies, you lose a chance to meet people in other departments.

Knowing people throughout the company is a valuable asset, and you might hear about interesting openings in other divisions. Think of it as inter-office networking.

* Do introduce yourself to higher-ups. This could be your best chance to meet upper-level executives at your company, who are normally inaccessible to the rank-and-file. Assuming you are sober, well-dressed and polite, it's an excellent chance to make a good impression.

* Don't hit up your boss for a raise. This is a social event. Ask your boss what she does outside of work, not when you can expect to be made project manager. Save the arguments for why you deserve a huge salary increase for your annual review. That goes for any ideas you have for "maximizing efficiency in the use of the office's shared color printer" as well.

* Do have fun. While you should not confuse office parties for college keggers, they can still be fun, especially if you don't have to spend decades repairing your reputation afterward.

E-mail Mary Ellen Slayter at slayterme@washpost.com. Join her for Career Track Live at 11 a.m. Monday.