HR Headaches: My Boss Wants to Hang Out After Work, But I Want to Just Relax With My Coworkers

Employees may feel uncomfortable when their boss wants to hang out. Here are some better ways teams can build relationships with each other.

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Boss wants to hang after work HR Headaches
Trying to find a good way to build your relationship with your employees?

The prospect of hanging out with your boss after hours (unless you work in a particularly close-knit company) can be cringe-worthy to employees. When the workday is over, it’s time to relax with friends and have fun. It’s not time to worry if everything you say or do is being judged against your professional persona. If a boss wants to hang out after work, they may be putting their staff in an awkward position without even knowing it.

The power dynamic of the boss/employee relationship may make it challenging for the employee to say no when asked to meet after hours. They may worry they really don’t have the option of declining without insulting the boss. When someone with power over you makes what appears to be a friendly gesture, it can be difficult to decline gracefully. Employees may make excuses, or even lie, to say no hoping they don’t offend or impact their relationship with the boss.

Friends versus friendly

Most employees feel like they can’t let their hair down when the boss is in attendance.
Some managers believe they need to befriend employees so they’ll be happy on the job and ultimately more productive. You work harder for people you like, right? There’s a difference between being friendly and cultivating a congenial working relationship and being friends. Blurring the line between the two can be more than uncomfortable, it could lead to unintended consequences.

Most employees feel they really can’t let their hair down with the boss in attendance. There are topics employees discuss, personal and professional, leaders shouldn’t be privy to. There are off-hours behaviors, like drinking a bit too much (or not drinking at all when others are partying hard), and they don’t want their managers to judge.

HR professionals know they’re the company buzzkill. Their presence at parties may be tolerated but it’s generally not welcomed. Managers may share disdain for the HR staffer with raised eyebrows at the bacchanalian birthday bash, but they’re pretty much in the same category. If your presence makes others feel uncomfortable or less able to relax with their actual friends, you’ve crossed over the friendly line.

As a reward

If the team achieved something special bosses may be tempted to offer them a celebratory drink after work. This can build relationships among the group and give them a chance to bask in their success. The challenge is distinguishing where the boss fits in, and how to make the reward as comfortable as possible for the group.

A best practice would be to buy a round, make a toast to their success, then leave them to revel on their own. You’ve provided the recognition they deserved, now provide the privacy to interact with their peers.

If a single employee does well, “I want to buy you a drink after work,” can become awkward. They might not drink; or if they do, you might not be in a position to buy them one drink then leave. Avoiding that scenario is a better idea. Reward them with a celebratory lunch if you want to make it a one-on-one, or you can have lunch (or a treat of some kind)  delivered to their desk as a congratulatory gesture.

For employees who don’t drink, an offer may be even more awkward. They may feel pressured to reveal personal information when they decline, like their religious beliefs or a history with alcohol. They may feel judged as antisocial when in reality they just aren’t interested.

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Watch for cues

Don’t be the boss who wants to hang out and asks to join. You overhear staff making plans to meet up at the bar next door or a restaurant down the street. If you insinuate yourself into the conversation, “You’re welcome to come if you like,” may be a half-hearted offer. Look for body language and tone to see if you’re really welcome or if they’re just being polite.

When you decline, thanking them for the offer, you may see a look of relief cross their faces. Don’t be offended, understand employees need a bit of ‘us-time’ with each other, which doesn’t automatically equate to time away from you.

Friends versus work friends

Relationships with peers make for a more welcoming work environment and provide a social bond to the workplace. In a recent study by Olivet Nazarene University found more than 80% of people say they work with someone they consider a friend. More than 60% said they spend time with work friends outside the company: 10% admitted they left a job because their friend did.

Generally, employees whose co-workers are also their friends are happier on the job.

It’s generally accepted that employees who have friends at work are happier on the job. The bonds they build with peers adds another layer to their connection with the company. These relationships provide an outlet to discuss work, its ups and downs, with someone who understands the dynamic of the business.

For companies, encouraging relationships between peers is a good idea. They can create opportunities and activities that allow staff members to have fun and establish non-work rapport. But when managers and supervisors get into the mix, it can change the dynamic. A manager offering to take a staffer out for a drink may appear to be a professional attempt at a relationship, or it might be viewed as a social opportunity or even sexual harassment.

Build relationships professionally

For managers looking to build relationships with their staff, a better idea would be lunch, on the company. The setting is less social and less likely to involve alcohol or discussions not suitable for the workplace. There is a benefit to making a connection, but make sure it stays on the professional side.

Avoid discussing family situation, politics or religion. You don’t want to blur the lines between a professional and personal relationship or discuss topics that you shouldn’t. You can still find common ground. Discuss professional goals, how they like the work or the company, and address any problems they may be encountering. Stick with neutral subjects like sports or hobbies. If the conversation steers toward the personal, redirect it back to professional or neutral topics.

My boss wants to hang out — where it might lead

A CareerBuilder survey found office romance was down, but 22% admitted they dated their boss — 30% admitted they dated someone at a higher level within the organization. While many of these relationships lead to marriage, many also lead to sexual harassment claims.

While some office romances may have a fairytale ending, many lead to sexual harassment claims.

Companies should discourage management from socializing with staff members in the virtual world (e.g., on social media) as well as in real life. Talk to your team leaders and let them know that unless there’s an unusual situation, spending time with staff members off-hours is frowned upon. You can’t prohibit employees from dating in real life but your policy can strictly prohibit behaviors that cross the line toward sexual harassment.

Say no, graciously, if your boss wants to hang out

If your boss wants to hang out after work, it’s best to decline politely. A quick “thanks for the offer but I already have plans,” generally works. If they ask what kind of plans, just say they’re personal. Don’t suggest you meet some other time, stand firm. If they persist in asking, and you continue to decline, it might be a good idea to talk to HR.

While it’s important to develop connections in the workplace, to establish trust and camaraderie, these relationships should stay at work. Off-hours activities, unless they’re company-wide events, are best avoided by management. It’s important to keep the line between personal and professional relationships clear.

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