Should you really force employees to attend workplace socials?

Workplace socials can be great for building team spirit. However, business owners should pay attention when employees don’t want to attend them

Should you really force employees to attend workplace socials?

And then the employee began to cry. Her boss had called her in for a face-to-face meeting to ask why she kept dodging the office’s social gatherings even though she seemed to enjoy spending time with her co-workers. “[She] would often have a different reason as to why she couldn’t attend,” remembers Lizzie Benton, founder and culture specialist at Liberty Mind, the company culture consultancy. “From not feeling well to other commitments, etcetera. The company kept arranging things on different days, different times and yet still she would not attend.”

As the employee repeatedly avoided these events, her co-workers told their employer that they began to feel self-conscious. Had they done something wrong? So the boss scheduled a meeting to talk about it. “[And then] she broke down explaining that her partner preferred if she didn’t attend the events,” Benton tells. “The employer was in complete shock, he had never had this situation happen before and was mortified that he had put so much pressure on her to attend without fully understanding her situation.” Her story serves as a stark reminder that employees may have a good reason for opting out of social gatherings with their colleagues. 

This may come as a shock to some business owners as most aim to create a collaborative culture where everyone feels included and get excited about work. Given human beings are social creatures, creating events enabling staff members to get out of the office to socialise therefore seems like a good idea.

At the face of it, the notion seems to be backed up by data. For instance, 77% of employees say their workplace relationships are the top drivers to how much they engage at work, according to a study by the Society for Human Research Management. Hence, organising a party, a day out at an amusement park or a team dinner may seem like a good idea to boost these relationships. “Socials are an important way to encourage a fun and friendly workplace, enhancing engagement and motivation,” suggests Ian Feaver, European sales and marketing director of workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe.

While most may be eager to spend time with colleagues under more relaxed conditions, others don’t. “I’ve had a number of clients who have had employees not wishing to attend workplace socials and this can be for a number of reasons,” Benton says. The reasons could be anything from not enjoying the activity to, as in the case of the woman mentioned earlier, abusive partners. “People shouldn’t be forced into social gatherings,” Benton implores.

No matter what the reason might be, each employer must take the employee’s feelings under consideration. “Many people have genuine reasons, such as the location and time of the event or personal commitments,” says Lizz Riley, operations executive at Bring Digital, the digital agency. To avoid employees missing out on the chance to connect with their co-workers, Riley advises business leaders to plan different socials at different times to ensure they’re suitable for everyone. “They should also ask employees what they would like to do to help accommodate as many people as possible,” she advises. “Employers must also understand that not everyone wants to mix outside of work. Personality types and culture should be taken into consideration too. What one person finds thoroughly exciting may be another person’s nightmare.”

One argument for socials is that it enables people who don’t usually hang out to get to know each other better. This reason is particularly prevalent in bigger businesses. “In a smaller company, however, teams probably spend a large amount of time together already,” comments Stuart Duff, head of development at Pearn Kandola, the business psychology consultancy. “So, my advice to any leaders that are planning a function is to make it an optional event. And by that I mean genuinely optional – not one where people are allowed to be subtly critical or dismissive of those who have decided, for whatever reason, not to come along. Making an informal event compulsory or creating an atmosphere where people feel they need to be there, not only removes the ability to demonstrate personal commitment or engagement but can actually create splits within the team. People should have the option to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’” 

Along the same vein, employees dodging workplace socials may be a symptom of conflicts or something else. “The best piece of advice I can give is to find out why people don’t seem keen to attend workplace socials and address it,” says Rita Trehan, a business transformation expert. In other words, make sure you listen to them. “It’s important to remember to exercise understanding and take their reasoning onboard – nothing will make them want to attend social events less than feeling judged for not wanting to come,” Trehan continues. 

Every employer may have appropriate reasons to bringing staff out for a day of fun or an evening of adventures. However, when planning these events it should therefore be clear that not everyone wants to attend and this should be okay.  

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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