January 22, 2006
How to Turn Down the After-Work Party
By MATT VILLANO
Q. Your colleagues often end workdays with get-togethers at a local watering hole. You don't oppose the outings, but you'd rather go home to your family. Can you decline without seeming like a killjoy?
A. As much as you'd like to think that personal time is personal, skipping after-work soirees may give colleagues the wrong idea. Maximillian Wachtel, owner of Cherry Creek Psychology, a psychology practice in Denver, says that in many companies, colleagues see willingness to socialize as a sign of interest in being part of the team.
"It really is important to foster a sense of loyalty and teamwork," Dr. Wachtel said. "Depending on what your role is, it can be very important to let your co-workers know you want to be a part of the corporate family."
Q. Can employers force employees to participate in such events?
A. Employers cannot legally require employees to participate in after-hours activities if they have already worked an eight-hour day.
Alan S. Kopit, a partner at Hahn Loeser & Parks, a law firm in Cleveland, added that when alcohol is involved, many companies try to distance themselves from the get-togethers.
Mr. Kopit, who is also legal editor for Lawyers.com, cited "dram shop" laws in some states that hold bars and the organizers of social events liable under certain circumstances if an employee is hurt at an after-hours event.
Q. What's the benefit of socializing with your colleagues outside of work?
A. It can help you get to know one another better. And John Seeley, president of Blue Moon Wonders, an executive coaching company in Newport Beach, Calif., says that attending happy hours can be a good way to get ahead, especially if high-ranking executives are present.
"Most employees don't get a lot of face time with the big bosses," Mr. Seeley said. "Making a good impression outside of work might be the difference when you're up for that next promotion."
Q. Is there a way to show support for these outings without becoming a regular fixture?
A. You don't have to stay long, and you don't have to drink alcohol. Some employees try to make a good impression at these events but end up doing things they regret, Mr. Seeley said. "When you're dancing on the tables," he said, "you've taken it too far."
Even if you can't attend weeknight happy hours, there are ways to show colleagues that you care. Before the event, inquire about what you will miss. Afterward, ask for details about how it went. J. Leslie McKeown, president and chief executive of Evna, an employee development company in Marblehead, Mass., takes his interest a step further.
When Mr. McKeown knows that he can't join an after-work party, he heads to the bar ahead of time and leaves money with the bartender to buy the first round of drinks.
"People are so surprised by this gesture," he said. "The next day they treat me as if I'd been there myself."
Q. If you choose not to go, do you need to explain why?
A. Don't ignore the invitation. Decline graciously. It is not necessary to make excuses for why you cannot attend, but if you do, truthful and apologetic explanations work best.
"Be clear about your reasons for not going," said Karissa Thacker, president of Strategic Performance Solutions, a management consulting firm in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
"As opposed to saying, 'Family is my most important value,' " she said, "tell fun stories about your kids and be specific about what you're going home to do with them."
A little explanation goes a long way. James Forte, public relations manager at Campbell Alliance, a pharmaceutical management consulting firm in Raleigh, N.C., learned this firsthand late last year when he and his wife had their first child. Before the baby's arrival, Mr. Forte, 28, had been a regular at company happy hours. With a newborn at home, however, he suddenly had different priorities.
"I declined by saying, 'I want to go home to spend time with my new son,' or 'I want to go home and relieve my wife of her baby-sitting duties,' " Mr. Forte said.
Q. Once you bow out, what kind of treatment can you expect from co-workers?
A. If you decline politely once or twice, people are not likely to notice. By bailing out six or seven times, however, you may alienate some co-workers.
Although his co-workers seemed to understand his reasons for not joining them, Mr. Forte said that after he repeatedly bowed out of after-work functions, his colleagues stopped inviting him. Even though he could not attend the events, he said he felt ostracized by not receiving invitations.
"I've had to work extra hard to be friendly and show them I'm not antisocial," he said.
In some workplaces, employees playfully chide co-workers for not attending after-work get-togethers. Ordinarily, this ribbing is harmless; in rare cases, however, employees can take it too far.