Etiquette for 'optional' workplace events that are not really optional?
December 21, 2012 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Starting to feel uncomfortable about work events which are allegedly optional but don't turn out to be. How to approach this with boss?

We seem to have a recurring issue in my workplace involving optional events that aren't really optional. I am starting to get a little uncomfortable about this. The most recent three were:

1) A 'volunteer' Christmas outreach event. I got out of this one because it was on the first night of Hanukkah and I am Jewish. Nobody said anything (to my face) about my not being there, but everyone else was there and a few people grumbled that I was 'lucky' I had an excuse not to be because they didn't have an excuse and felt they had to go.

2) A staff Christmas party. This was held at a co-worker's home on a Friday evening starting at 5 pm. It had been our busiest week with all of us staying late for two nights that week, including the previous one. Two people left at 7:30 because they had kids to pick up. I left at 8 pm because I was getting a ride with another co-worker who was leaving then. I felt I had done my bit. But then I heard the next day that people stayed quite late and were gossiping about those of us who left...

3) After-work 'drinks' for the boss' birthday. I went, and since I felt weird about the Christmas party thing, I made sure I was the very last one to leave. The other last to leave was the co-worker who gave me a ride from the Christmas party :)

Am I wrong to feel a bit put out by all of this? If it's optional, I don't think they should be criticizing people for putting in a reasonable appearance and then heading home to their lives. Not all of us enjoy socializing with co-workers, and not all of us enjoy doing it on weeknights when we've put in a full day at work. I don't think that staying three hours at a Christmas party and then calling it a night is so horrible.

But historically, I know that those who don't go to these things do get gossiped about afterward so I feel that there is sometimes pressure to go. What is the best way to handle these types of situations?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total)
Who are you feeling this pressure from? Co-workers or the boss? You talk about people gossiping after you leave, but that's not your boss, is it? Who is criticizing you for leaving early? If it's not your boss then don't worry about it. If it is your boss, have a conversation with him or her about it and get clarification about expectations.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:10 PM on December 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

This isn't something you should discuss with your boss. No good can come of it. If these events distress you that much, and co-workers gossip about you, you're likely better off finding a different job.
posted by dfriedman at 7:11 PM on December 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't mean have a conversation with your boss about the gossip. I mean have a conversation about whether attendance at these activities is really optional or not. If your attendance is actually mandatory, then go. If they really are optional, then don't go if you don't want to, and don't worry about the gossipers.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:18 PM on December 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Why is gossiping a problem? It sounds like your workplace is one of those where everything gives rise to comment. Just ignore, unless it is your boss doing the talking.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:21 PM on December 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's hard to give concrete advice without knowing more details about what kind of place you work at and what industry you're in, but I suspect that this is one of those office culture things that sucks but which is really hard to change without incurring significant negative reputation. I have a feeling that you are going to have to make your peace with this or else move on to a different job, depending on how much you are bothered. Or you could take your concerns up with your boss, but I wouldn't expect much good to come from that.
posted by Scientist at 7:53 PM on December 21, 2012

How long have you been at your job? If you're relatively new, then there's a good chance that the gossip about you leaving parties early will get old real quick, it's really not interesting enough for people to keep talking about.
posted by at 7:59 PM on December 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some workplaces are "lifestyle" places, where your social/professional lives mingle. Fortunately my current workplace is not but I have worked at such a place and it's uncomfortable for me. Beyond "how was your weekend" and "love those pics of your kids" I keep my personal & professional lives separate as much as possible. However, depending on your field, how many events/seminars/conventions you travel to, where the real networking happens ... socializing after hours with colleagues and your company's execs may be part of moving up.

On the other hand, people are going to grumble & gossip no matter what. Don't worry about them. Decide what you want to do and do it.
posted by headnsouth at 8:10 PM on December 21, 2012

You are Jewish? Why on earth would they expect you to go to a Christmas party unless you really wanted to??????

Unless your work culture is really weird or you are a supervisor I think you would be just fine making an appearance and then leaving. Gossips are gossips no matter what you do.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:20 PM on December 21, 2012

I work in a multi layered work environment. We have had 4 (four) yes count 'em FOUR holiday dinners/lunches/potlucks in this month. Some people don't show. Some people leave early. Some people put their heart and soul into planning the party and making it nice for everyone. Some people eat too much, hog the egg nog, or reaveal evidence of recent gastric bypass surgery by eating teeny tiny servings. Some peple do not understand the concept of a cookie swap.
We when we get to talking in my office about the party, we talk about them all. As I am sure that I am talked about to, in other offices. Then we go back to work. That is the nature of the place. It does not in any way affect our working relationships, because we are all really nice people and working hard and we basically respect our co-workers and appreciate their work.

So unless you think that people are seriously belittling you for an early departure or you are getting some blowback about 'not being a team player' or something I would not worry about it.

Oh, and the guy who didn't show for the party last night? He was a real slow starter the first year in our department, but we learned how to work with him, and now he is a strong performer. He always seems to have a little something stashed away in his closet when its someone's birthday, and he put a little chocolate gift on everyone's desk this morning. He doesn't go to the parties, he didn't mention/reveal his boyfriend girlfriend status for 2 years, he's not a socializing type, but he does find a way to be friendly. So you might try something like that.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:28 PM on December 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

The issue is not so much the workplace events but, as others have said, your workplace culture - which is to gossip and complain about everything. Which means, no matter what you do, you'll be the subject of some gossip. You can't change your workplace culture - you can only conform, put up with it, or leave.
posted by heyjude at 9:34 PM on December 21, 2012

I can see how this might feel uncomfortable. But even if your boss is part of the gossip, it probably just means you're in a casual (which I would read as unprofessional but others would not) environment. When people leave parties, sometimes they get talked about. It's just the way of the world.

Try to look at it this way: If people don't have any place better to be than hanging out with the people they see all day, then they probably don't have anything better to do than gossip about other people. Don't take it personally.

On the other hand, even if you're not personally friendly with your co-workers, that's no way that has to mean you need to act like the opposite. I'm like the guy SLC Mom describes in her last paragraph. I'm never the guy who eats lunch with other people in the office unless it's an "event" -- but I always have candy on my desk and birthday cards for those I know. It's my thing. But it's my only thing. (Well, drinks after work sometimes but again those are "events.") Maybe I'm missing some sort of professional networking by mostly doing my own thing, day in, day out, but it hasn't seemed to hurt me so far, and in times of personal hardship, my co-workers, even though I may sit in my cubicle and not talk to them all day, have been incredibly kind and helpful even though they in many ways they don't know "real me" from Adam.

The most important thing to realize that work friendships 9 out of 10 times are not anything like real friendships. Sometimes you have to put up with bullshit (a little gossip, weird slights) that you never would never let slide without comment from your actual friends. So try not to take the bad stuff personally and if it's just feeling slightly icky rather than seriously damaging your career, you're probably going to be just fine.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:38 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some people grumbled and gossiped. So what? People will always find things to grumble and gossip about. Did it have any real impact on your employment situation? If not, then I would just stay above it and not worry about it.
posted by Dansaman at 9:57 PM on December 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is this a seasonal thing or this a year round thing? The holidays often ramp up the socializing - pure nuisance, but there it is.

If it's just holiday festivities, then go to the parties and make/fake merry. If it's a constant demand on your evenings then go to every second or third event. You need to socialize just enough to not seem like a recluse.
posted by 26.2 at 10:31 PM on December 21, 2012

At some places, it's really important to build friendships in different settings for employees. This might sound annoying, but every time you show up and ate pleasant and a nice guy who doesn't bitch about having to be there, you build social capital that strengthens the chance of improving your future career opportunities.
posted by discopolo at 11:55 PM on December 21, 2012

I am against the idea of unpaid socialising outside of working hours. I don't think you're in the wrong at all for being upset by this. I don't mind spending time with my colleagues when I'm paid to, but they aren't really the sort of people I'd want as friends.

It sounds like your co-workers really buy into the socialising ideal, though. There's not a lot that you can do to stop them gossiping about you. If it's happening in the workplace and people aren't getting their work done because of it, then maybe your boss would/could step in and sort the situation out. However, people who do that sort of thing don't generally care if they've upset you, they care more about being part of the "in crowd". And it sounds like to be part of the "in crowd", you have to go to these parties and gossip about other folk who aren't there to defend themselves. If it's any comfort, gossips don't care about you leaving so much as they care about keeping up appearances. Anyone could leave, and they'd get gossiped about - it's not specific to you. I don't blame you in the slightest for not wanting to be a part of the clique.

It seems like you have two choices. Go to the party and make "nice", or deal with the fact that your co-workers are going to talk about you. I do the latter. I find the idea of being friends with people so they can help me with my career a little bit distasteful. It doesn't seem honest to me, and I'd hate to think that someone was being nice to me because they wanted something from me. That said, the adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" can work quite well when looking for a job.

There are other ways to build social capital in the workplace. My colleagues (including my bosses) come to me when something goes wrong with the computers because I can talk to the techy people and get the problem resolved quickly. They come to me when they need someone to cover a shift or do extra work, because I'm generally available. And they seem to come to me when they want a sympathetic ear, for some unknown reason. You can make yourself a workplace ally without engaging in office politics. This is a useful thing - as with the gossiping, someone on the "outside" is in a riskier position than someone on the "inside".
posted by Solomon at 3:04 AM on December 22, 2012

People who gossip look worse in the long run than somebody who leaves early or doesn't attend.

I think it's ok to continue attending events when you can and leave early when you feel it's time to get going.
posted by smirkyfodder at 5:02 AM on December 22, 2012

I think it's worth the price of having people gossip (it isn't really gossip -- it's grumbling or complaining) to be able to "arrive late and leave early."

It's not worth going to the boss about this -- you'll be the one complaining and grumbling, at that point.

In my office, the complaints are about the endless birthday cards and celebrations. Everyone (up to 60 people) HAS to sign the card and then there's cake. People feel obligated to step away from their work and attend the cake thing. But some people feel left out if their group on the third floor didn't get invited to cake. And then you have the marketing director complaining that people just show up for the cake and "don't really care" about the birthday girl. (For the record, this criticism is probably coming from a racist, classist place).

I tried to gently suggest at a leadership meeting that the rank and file was getting grumbly from many different angles and maybe we should just have team-level bday celebrations instead of department-wide. Everyone cried foul because they want to foster "more community" and this seemed to go in the opposite direction.

I have, probably, 6 other ideas for fostering community -- but for some reason, the birthday card and cake (which everyone has to pitch $ in for) remains the core of the "community-building" effort.

My point is -- people are unhappy, unhappy that they have to go, unhappy that some people don't, unhappy that some people leave early...some of them will talk about their unhappiness. It's not really likely to be a black mark on your personnel file. Or if it is -- start going to those parties and curse your boss--not your coworkers.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:16 AM on December 22, 2012

I like SLC Mom's advice. Work relationships matter, a lot. If you can find out when everybody's birthdays are, put them in your calendar, pick up a card for each person, and remember to leave it for them for when they arrive. Keep notes on people, which sounds creepy, but isn't. I worked, by phone, with a guy who was a really successful salesman. He'd ask if my son was still playing soccer, or if I'd been sailing recently, based on previous conversations. Even though I knew he had some sort of great rolodex or software to keep notes, I still liked him for it. Just find some way to have a personal connection with each person.

Propose that the company specify 1 day a year for staff to do volunteer work; your local United Way probably has a plan for this. "Volunteer" work on your own time, for somebody else's project, is crappy.

Drinks after work are worth attending, though. Be cheerful, leave with your ride, and chat it up a little the next day.
posted by theora55 at 11:11 AM on December 22, 2012

There's a certain amount of this social stuff you simply have to accept, and there's nothing you can do about it. This happens all the time.

You don't want to be there. But you know lots of other people don't want to be there either. If you don't go, you'll get grumbled about.

Years ago, I worked at a place with an annual holiday party that I dreaded. I ended up carpooling with four guys who went together every year. At first, they were reluctant to give me a ride. Once I got in the car, one of them hinted that they might not be staying long. When I seemed glad about that, all four of them turned to face me and let me in on their little secret. They made me memorize a list of names - a list of people to make face-time with, even if just a quick hello - to prove I'd been at the party. We all had the same list of important people, but each in a different order. We were in and out of there in a half hour.

Most people don't want to go to these events.
Putting on a happy face is part of your job.
That sucks, right?
posted by 2oh1 at 11:26 AM on December 22, 2012

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