I was told not to attend a former coworker’s retirement party

A reader writes:

I used to work for a health care organization that managed several hospitals and research institutes. I left the organization in 2012 to pursue another opportunity in another field. This month, a senior director in this organization is retiring. I will call her Sally. I heard from a current employee at the organization that a retirement tea party is being held for Sally. As a courtesy, I emailed the organizer of the tea party to say I would like to wish Sally well in person and give her my best at this function.

This is the reply I got from the tea party planner: “Thanks for the note and I am sure that Sally would like to hear from you and your well wishing. Due to security requirements and numbers, this event is for current employees of [company name].”

Is this reasonable? I am dumbfounded, as I saw in an earlier email from this woman who is planning the tea, that she asked people to circulate the invitation to others who Sally has worked with. I simply want to stop by, say my well wishes and wish her all the best on her retirement.

Do you think that this tea party planner just isn’t comfortable with former employees being there, even though it’s supposed to be a party for Sally? If that was the case, I would argue she should have made that clear when telling people about the event.

I have no idea, but I wouldn’t take it personally.

What I can tell you is that it’s absolutely true that some events like this are intended for current employees and not former ones. Obviously one extra person isn’t too hard to accommodate, but hey, some people are sticklers for rules. And it’s not totally crazy for the people hosting and/or paying not to want to deal with “Jane Smith came to Sally’s party last month, so why can’t former employees Apollo Warbucks and Percival Montblanc come to Lucinda’s this month?”

Regarding the fact that the invitation suggested inviting other people Sally has worked with, that could easily mean other employees. And sure, she didn’t spell out “NO FORMER EMPLOYEES, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD,” because it probably didn’t even occur to her to think about that, if their parties are usually just their coworkers.

Regardless, she’s told you it’s just an internal party, and that’s that. I wouldn’t spend any more time thinking about it — and definitely don’t sulk about it. File this away in the Not a Big Deal bucket.

And if you want to wish Sally well, there’s nothing stopping you from stopping by on your own at a different time or calling or emailing her with your well wishes.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Chocolate Teapot

    It seems to be fairly standard to make these sorts of events current employees only. I got the impression that “other people Sally has worked with” means current employees in other divisions.

    I don’t see anything wrong with sending a card/message with best wishes though.

    1. KarenT

      It seems to be fairly standard to make these sorts of events current employees only. I got the impression that “other people Sally has worked with” means current employees in other divisions.

      I agree, especially if the company is footing the bill. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all for them to not want to extend the invitation to people outside the company. As a one off, getting tea and snacks for one extra person wouldn’t be expensive or a pain, but if they did it all the time it could be. And I can also see why they wouldn’t want ex-employees attending their parties!

      1. Judy

        Our company does just a coffee, iced tea and cake reception for retirements. I’ve never been to one that at least part the retiree’s family wasn’t there. I’ve definitely seen former employees there, mostly other retirees, but sometimes employees that had quit.

        1. KarenT

          My company is actually the same. And I’m not saying that former employees shouldn’t be allowed, but that not allowing them isn’t insane.

      2. some1

        “And I can also see why they wouldn’t want ex-employees attending their parties!”

        This made me think of another point: a lot of employers don’t let ex-employees on the premises *at all* if they were fired or laid off, so possibly part of the reasoning behind this is no ex-employees whatsoever instead of inviting the ones who left by choice?

    2. some1

      Ditto. Or invite her to grab a lunch or cup of coffee.

      And *don’t* tell Sally that you wanted to come to the party but weren’t allowed, because this just puts her in an awkward position that she had no control over.

      1. anon-2

        Disagree. Assuming you get together with her, Sally is owed an explanation as to why you weren’t at the other party. You don’t want a good friend to think YOU pulled a snub and refused to go.

        1. Daisy

          But it seems obvious from the letter that Sally isn’t a ‘good friend’, just a colleague. Otherwise the OP would know from her that she’s retiring.

        2. RobM

          You don’t think that the OP no longer works for the same company as Sally isn’t an explanation as to why the OP wasn’t at an internal event?

  2. AnonHR

    If they’re a healthcare org holding it at their administrative location, it may be a HIPAA insurability issue. In our building, non-employees basically have to have an employee to be their keeper- someone who invited them and accompany them in the building and are responsible for knowing when they leave and arrive. A party might not be the easiest situation to monitor that.

    1. NylaW

      This is exactly what I was thinking. In certain areas of our hospital, all staff and visitors have to be accounted for at all times for security and privacy reasons.

      But even if they aren’t healthcare related, it’s not totally unheard of for this kind of policy to exist.

    2. The IT Manager

      The is totally reasonable! Clearly you are not being singled-out. Due to security requirements and numbers, this event is for current employees of [company name].”

      I am completely baffled why LW is so upset about this. It seems pretty straight-forward.

      1. fposte

        I’m guessing that the OP had a different read on the request to circulate the invitation to prior co-workers of the retiree, and that maybe a few other people did as well and are therefore sending the invitation outside of the current employment list.

        I still think that the appropriate response is “Whoops, looks like there were crossed wires on who this is for–I’ll salute her another time.” But I can understand that it might take a minute to recalibrate when the signs you were first receiving seemed to say “Hey, come to celebrate Sally even if you don’t work with her any more!”

  3. Diet Coke Addict

    I love how in this universe, Jane Smith and Sally socialize with Percival Montblanc, Apollo Warbucks, and Wakeen.

  4. JMegan

    >>Obviously one extra person isn’t too hard to accommodate…

    *One* extra person is not hard to accommodate at all. But if Sally was one of those super-popular people who had friends in all departments and at all stages of her career, then it’s possible that the hosts would be suddenly asked to accommodate twenty extra people instead of just one.

    Having a party for current employees that Sally has worked with is one thing, but opening the doors to every person who has ever worked with her in the past X years is something else entirely. It’s perfectly reasonable to limit the guest list to current employees only.

    Also, the “please feel free to invite other people that Sally worked with” line is pretty standard. Usually it means that the person hosting the party is not presuming to know everybody who Sally interacts with reguarly at work. It’s pretty easy to identify the people on her actual team, but the organizer may not know she goes for lunch every week with Jane from Accounting so Jane should absolutely be invited. But the assumption remains that it’s for current co-workers only, unless specifically stated otherwise.

  5. Just a Reader

    I think it’s bizarre to invite yourself to a party for which you didn’t get an invitation at a place you no longer work, and then get bent out of shape about it.

    1. Elizabeth

      Normally, I would agree, but I think retirement parties are a little different. I think retirement parties are often more like open houses, where anyone who knows the guest of honor is welcome.

      Absolutely, if you find out that this retirement party is different than most, then you shouldn’t be upset, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the assumption that if you worked with Sally, you will be welcome.

      1. KarenT

        But even if they often are, it’s still the hosts that get to decide if it’s an open house or if anyone and everyone are welcome.

    2. Ann O'Nemity

      The OP *was* invited, but not by the party organizer. If I’m reading the letter correctly, the party organizer sent out an email that specifically asked folks to circulate the invitations to others that Sally had worked with. Unfortunately, the organizer never said that the party would be for current employees only, so someone incorrectly assumed that it would be okay to invite the OP. From an etiquette standpoint, I don’t see how the OP is in the wrong here.

      And I agree with Alison. At this point, the best thing for the OP to do is to not take it personally and just let it go.

      1. A Bug!

        My read on the letter was that OP was not so much invited as she was simply made aware of the party by another former coworker. It isn’t clear in the letter when (or how) the OP got a hold of the “earlier e-mail”.

        Either way, my initial read of the first paragraph is basically “Sandeep told me that Hilda was organizing a retirement party for Sally, so I contacted Hilda to express my interest in attending.”

        The OP’s description of her initial contact with the organizer doesn’t sound like an RSVP, as I’d expect it to if the OP were already under the impression that she had received an invitation through the other former coworker. Instead, it seems like a pretty explicit request for an invitation.

      2. Just a Reader

        I think that goes for private parties, but I can’t imagine any employer footing the bill for a something that includes non-employees, especially when the party is at the office.

    3. Claire

      Me too. I get that there was confusion, but it’s clearly a company policy not meant to exclude anyone in particular. There was a miscommunication; it happens. Just say, “So sorry! I was confused by the wording. Sally and I will figure out another time to get together,” and move on.

    4. Daisy

      Yes. I have been reading AAM for ages, yet I never cease to be dumbfounded by the everyday things about which people manage to be dumbfounded.

  6. Lindsay the Temp

    At our Org, it’s customary to invite their current department, and then consult the retiree directly for other departmental or past employees they’d like to see specifically invited.

    1. Cassie

      Yeah, I think our dept does this too. When a couple of long-time employees retired, they invited people from auxiliary depts as well as people who have retired or since left (both from our dept and auxiliary depts).

      For non-retiring employees leaving, the parties are usually simpler and have less people (assuming there is a party at all).

    2. Fee

      I think this was the case at my old job too and it’s really the only logical thing that makes sense. If the company or even current colleagues choose then suddenly Sally is at her retirement party making small talk with that jerk from Accounting she always hated, for no other reason than he never turns down a free party.

  7. KLH

    I thought the question was going to be one of being forbidden by management to associate after hours with the former coworker who has gone on to better things and is now retiring. Darn.

  8. Mena

    This party is sponsored by Sally’s employer and they are inviting current employees. You asked to be included and were politely turned down. Yes, I can see why they might not want former employees hearing current, company-confidential discussion. And yes, you can certainly reach out to Sally yourself and express your good wishes.

    This is less about you and more about the company setting some boundaries. But remember, you are a former employee asking to be invited to a company sponsored event. It isn’t surprising to me that they’ve set a limit.

  9. Mena

    “I was told not to attend a former co-worker’s retirement party” isn’t the right headline.

    “I invited myself to my fomer employer’s party and was turned down” is probably closer to the truth.

    And if we pass this letter over to the Etiquestte Hell blog, there would be some REALLY great reaction.

  10. Claire

    The e-mail could have been clearer in specifying that “others Sally has worked with” means “other company employees not within the division/department.” That said, I think the OP’s “dumbfounded” reaction is over the top. The company is paying for it; it’s completely understandable that they may want to limit numbers, especially if they’re a non-profit. Plus, as at least one other poster above me has noted, heath care organizations can be extremely vigilant about who they let onto the premises (and rightfully so). Having a bunch of unauthorized people just strolling in for a retirement party would likely raise some red flags.

    Don’t take it personally. If bidding Sally goodbye is very important to you, take her out for lunch or coffee.

    1. ChristineSW

      This is pretty much what I was going to say. I was starting to wonder if I’m the only who would’ve interpreted the invitation to mean that it was okay to invite former coworkers. But the reasons make perfect sense.

  11. Brett

    The advice did not make sense to me because it never occurred to me
    I never realized before that companies actually threw parties for retirees.

    Is this really that common of a practice? The only retiree parties I have attended were thrown (and paid for) by the retiree’s co-workers.

    1. Colette

      If Sally’s current coworkers are paying for the party, they are equally entitled to choose to limit it to current employees. Regardless of whether they want to invite the world, if they’re having it at the organization’s building, the organization gets a vote, too, because they control access to the building.

    2. BadPlanning

      At my Big Company, you can have a retirement party. It’s usually a donuts, fruit, coffee and cake affair. Not fancy, but a time set aside for people to bid you farewell.

      1. Christine

        Ditto. My company does a small event during work hours with punch and cake. Current employees are invited. I’ve never seen past employees specifically excluded, but I’ve never seen them in attendance either, so it’s understood. Often, the retiree also hosts a party after hours with friends and family and former coworkers.

    3. Judy

      Our company’s corporate policy is a sheet cake, coffee and iced tea in the large meeting rooms. Families of the retiree are invited, and I’ve certainly seen former co-workers at the party. Managers speak for 15-20 minutes, with possible razzing, and then the rest is just an open house for well wishers.

      The only official celebrations this company pays for are retirement parties and a monthly “birthday celebration” where they have donuts and coffee and have a power point on the screen with the month’s birthdays.

    4. JoAnna

      When my grandpa retired after 19 years at his company (and he was a factory worker), they threw a party for him and invited his wife plus all of his children and their families (as well as current co-workers). It was really nice and I have fond memories of that party.

  12. hamster

    At my old job, i had a wonderful manager. She raised from the team and was loved and respected. After she left to pursue other opportunities, we still included her in team outings, bought her a secret santa gift, etc . It’s just human relationships. Years of mutual respect and friendship don’t get cut very easily. I don’t think OP should be upset, but if the workplace was something like mine, she was perhaps hurt/confused when they drew the line. Many years in a friendly company with a more-than-co-workers-but-friends culture can blurr the lines between social and work. OP, please take Sally to coffe one day close to her office and give her your wishes. Nothing wrong with that! Or call/send a card/flowers!

    1. Jen in RO

      I was thinking the same. I still go see my ex-coworkers (in their office) and I attended the Christmas party (paid for by the company). I would be surprised to learn that former employees were not allowed at retirement parties… b ut life goes on I guess. This company seems to have good reasons for keeping it private.

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