Bringing Work to the Bar: How to Put Fair Limits on the After-Work Hang

Caroline Beaton

After many months mining through kununu employee reviews, I’ve noticed something interesting: rather than celebrate after-work time with bosses and coworkers, many employees dread and resent it. Why?

First, after-work events can wreck work-life balance.

Dozens of employees commented that what’s supposed to be optional bonding time is effectively mandatory. There were parties and events every single week that employees were usually required to attend,” one anonymous employee noted in their kununu review. “Part of the reason for that was to, one, build up the company image and, two, as a sort of unspoken employee bonding exercise.” Another kununu reviewer from ViaQuest Behavioral & Psychiatric Solutions explained that their company “pull[s] you in with the great company culture they claim to have,” but then imposes required “culture building meetings” and drinks after work. “The long days and mandatory events led to no work-life balance.”  

Still worse, even if after-work socializing isn’t mandatory, it’s often the only way to advance. 

Office relationships are, wrote one Jack Henry & Associates employee in their kununu review, “the only way to get ahead in the company … it really is a matter of who you know.” Countless other reviews confirmed this: “Unless you are wanting to schmooze your way to the top, you will remain stagnant and not get promoted,” wrote one anonymous worker; “Frankly, career advancement seems to be based on who you know and if you socialize with them outside of work,” wrote an employee at Red Lake Department of Public Safety.

Moreover, after-work socializing can be cliquey.

One employee said that King Soopers’ company culture was “like high school,” where the only thing that matters is who you are. Likewise, an employee at Protection One explained that “the company treats you differently based on who you know at the company and/or who you socialize with.” Several reviewers described a “good ol’ boys” culture, “where you have to work at the main office and have drinks with the boss to go anywhere,” as one anonymous employee put it. Another, at Mid State Industrial, said that unless you hunt, fish and drink, you “won’t move up the ladder”.

Though after-work staff bonding can be burdensome, cliquey and unfair, it’s also important and necessary. kununu reviews recognized this: One Orthonet LLC employee lamented that “coworkers don’t have time to interact.” Another, at B.E. Smith, Inc., described a “cold culture” where “No one socializes. Head down work environment all of the time.” One Barracuda Networks employee even likened her no-socialization environment to a military base.

 

In short, workers need balance. Here are a few ways to set boundaries on the after-work hang:

1) Know yourself and where you fit.

What’s fun for one person might be another’s nightmare. For example, an employee at Onward Search wrote about her company’s “fun crowd of people.” “I love doing happy hours with my team and bonding,” she wrote. Someone else might feel anxious and burdened by the same circumstance. Personality books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts can help you understand your psychological tendencies. The better you know yourself, the better you can learn how to interact with people who aren’t like you.

After-work socializing etiquette may also depend on your age. “The younger crowd, like ones under 30, tend to socialize after work,” one anonymous employee noted on their kununu review, while “The old crowd tends to go home after 5pm.” Sometimes negotiating your after-work strategy simply requires finding your people within the company. If you’re 25 and never want to go out, you may be able to wiggle your way into an older work crowd that socializes at work but prioritizes other things after work. But realize that you might in turn compromise your upward mobility.

2) Talk to your boss.

Talk to the person who’s responsible for your workload and promoting you. Instead of saying, “I can’t make it” or “I don’t think I should have to socialize after work to get ahead,” explain your conflict. Here’s an example of something you could say to your boss:

“I really care about this company and am dedicated to my role in it, but I frequently find myself having to choose between work and [insert conflict: kids, hobby, spouse, working out, etc.] even after the work day is over. Do you have any advice? I want to do what’s best for both me and the company, and I don’t want to let anyone down.”

You’ll either get permission to skip out on these events—you may find your boss is surprised you felt pressured in the first place—or you’ll learn that your job requires after-work time. If the latter, you’ll need to make a decision about whether your job, and everything it entails, is worthwhile. But at least you’ll have clarity on expectations.

 

3) Decline invitations strategically.

Sometimes after-work socializing is a matter of picking your battles. Give yourself a certain number of “outs” per month, or tell yourself that you’ll always go unless you have a legitimate conflict. Whatever you do, don’t become the person who always makes last-minute excuses. Go enough so that you don’t stop getting invited. The only thing worse than feeling obligated to hang out with people is feeling unable to.

We can lament that after-work socializing is the only way to get ahead, but such is life. The prevalence of kununu reviews about this very conflict is evidence: personal dilemmas around after-work expectations are inevitable. The sooner we put proper boundaries on our after-work time, the sooner we can begin to take advantage of the human side of work.

 

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.