boss won’t socialize with staff

A reader writes:

I work in a rather small office, and occasionally we will have short in-office lunches to celebrate a special occasion (weddings, new babies, beginning of spring, etc). We usually have no more than 15-20 people at a gathering.

Our new boss of one year never attends these functions. Sometimes he will buy pizza for us as a nice gesture, yet he doesn’t enter the conference room to sit and mingle and chat with his employees. Every blue moon he will enter (late) just to get his food and walk back to his office. He’s always mentioning how he wants people to be happy and cheerful and love where they work, yet when the time arrives for us all to get to know each other a little better and to relax, he retreats. Occasionally, you’ll hear someone say, “Where’s the boss?”

I’m quite offended by him being so anti-social and a few co-workers are, as well. How can he constantly ask people if they are happy at work, yet clearly avoids social situations? I feel he thinks it is unprofessional for him to mingle with his subordinates. Should any of us really feel offended by his behavior? Should he attend these gatherings?

Actually, from what’s written here, he sounds pretty nice. He’s buying you pizza, letting you have various celebrations in the office, and frequently telling you that he wants you to be happy.

He could be avoiding these gatherings because he’s swamped with work … or because he believes that his presence would inhibit whatever fun you’d normally have … or, hell, because he’s shy.

My advice to him would be to put in some face time at these gatherings occasionally, but I certainly don’t think he needs to attend every one of them, as it sounds like there are quite a few (beginning of spring?). And if he chooses not to, I don’t think you guys should be offended by it; it sounds like you’re attributing motives to it that you don’t have any evidence are actually there. Sometimes you can choose not to be offended, and I think this is one of those times.

But if you would like to have him there sometimes, why not invite him explicitly? Next time you’re organizing a gathering, just say to him, “We would love to have you join us at this lunch. We never get to see you socially.”

It’s a rare situation that can’t be fixed by candor.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. class-factotum*

    No. You should not be offended. Maybe he does feel it’s unprofessional to fraternize. Is that a problem? Or would you rather he open himself to charges of favoritism?

    Maybe there are co-workers who would rather not fraternize and who feel pressured to do so. How are these lunches funded? Is everyone forced to contribute, perhaps against their will?

    There might be more going on here than you think. When I was working, I wanted to run errands or go to they gym at lunch. I did not want to spend lunch with co-workers. I did not want to be forced to go to a baby shower and I really did not want to be forced to contribute to a meal I did not want to attend. Your boss is buying the pizza, which is more than should be expected.

  2. The Engineer*

    The boss is acknowledging and allowing your workplace lunch gatherings. Why is anything more required? You are free on lunch, it is your time, you are not at work.

    I don’t mind the occasional casual mingle at the office, but your description paints a pretty regular schedule. Don’t confuse an invitation with an directive. You invite and others accept or decline. He mostly declines.

    A smart decision for a lot of reasons. Yes, it can be unprofessional to mingle with subordinates.

    There is a hint of a passive aggressive power play here. That is, someone without formal authority pushing for the one with authority to conform to the subordinate.

  3. HRD*

    I find myself (as the boss) in these situations quite a lot and there is a fine balance to be struck. I don’t want to impose on my team and for them to feel that they have to “behave” because the boss is there.

    At the same time I need to accept that I am different in the sense that I am their manager and therefore I will never be one of the crowd.

    If you really want them there (as a person not just because you think they should) let them know. I know that I personally would be hugely grateful for that.

  4. Just Another HR Lady*

    Wow…people will find anything to complain about. Sounds to me like you have a good boss, he’s paying for your free lunch!

    As a manager myself, I have to be honest, I do pop into these types of events briefly (I have to, I’m HR), but I spend the whole time thinking about what I should be doing instead so I don’t have to leave the office at 9 pm. Sometimes they feel like a real imposition on my time.

    Your boss is supporting YOU in having a good time, but likely he’s just too busy to stop and enjoy himself. Try not to read anything into it, it’s doubtful that it’s personal.

  5. Anonymous*

    It’s not enough the boss is allowing these functions or paying for them this staffer wants happy face time. I wonder if that will be enough?

    If I were to guess what’s going on: Maybe what the boss does on their own time isn’t the staff’s concern.

    Maybe the boss has a boss breathing down their neck that work – actual work – needs to get done if the co is going to make a profit.

    Maybe the boss is perplexed how to end celebrations without impacting morale.

    Maybe the boss figures may as well celebrate now since there will be layoffs soon. It’s not like anyone is using ‘happy time’ to figure out ways to be more productive, right?

    Maybe the boss thinks it’s unprofessional to cavort with staff.

    Maybe it’s all of the above. How the heck are we supposed to know?

    The op should be glad they don’t work for me. I’m all for a good party – but often? Even occassionally? No. Who’s working while these ‘occassions’ are being planned or attended? (Don’t even try to tell me that all the planning was done off company time.. )

    If the OP is ‘genuinely’ concerned about the boss (not how awkward they feel) they could always talk to the boss after they thank them for allowing these celebrations.

  6. Anonymous*

    Think about this situation if it were reversed.

    If the boss was the one who endorsed these social activities and there was an “unspoken” expectation that staff had to be there … would it be any more acceptable?

    Social activities at work can’t and shouldn’t be mandated. It just adds more fodder to the gossip mill and creates an artificial schoolyard situation where people feel they have to show up just to fulfill some “role”.

  7. Poppy*

    I think AAM has hit the nail on the head with her advice – specifically invite him to the next lunch. And perhaps say why you’re keen to have him attend – without saying anything about being offended (that’s just asking for someone to get defensive). If you’re open and honest, he’ll feel more comfortable being open back.

    It’s great that your team want to celebrate together. From your letter, I didn’t take it that the lunches are mandatory or that they are lengthy affairs that encroach on work time. My previous team used to have shared morning teas for birthdays and other special occasions and maybe we were just lucky to have a group that, while diverse, were likeminded when it came to these small celebrations. Sure, for 10 minutes the day before there would invariably be emails flying back and forth (to the whole group) telling each other what they’d bring – and begging our resident ‘top chef’ to bring one of her specialities.

    For those who think these events are something that the boss needs to put up with or are something we shouldn’t be doing in the current climate – in particular I refer to Anonymous’ comment: “It’s not like anyone is using ‘happy time’ to figure out ways to be more productive, right?” – we shouldn’t underestimate the team building these things can have when they are driven by the team. My team had their own customers and workload, yet if someone’s workload was higher, they’d work together to prioritise their work and help each other out to meet deadlines. They knew it could be them needing help next time. It was awesome to see – and no directive could be as effective as that. Those actions come when a team feels they genuinely know and care for each other.

  8. Anonymous*

    I agree with your boss. When you are at work…you are at work…we are not trying to make friends…he must keep the boundaries…and he is doing a good job.

  9. Charles*

    “I’m quite offended by him being so anti-social. . . “Seriously? I can think of several, more serious, issues to be “offended” by? That anyone, more specifically the boss, won’t eat lunch with me is not one of them.

    I wouldn’t even suggest AAM’s advice – you could be opening a “can of worms” here by “explicitly” inviting him.

    I am, of course, assuming that you have already invited him when you invited others. If not, then be sure to include him in the next email invite. Otherwise, it is a “non-issue.” Let it go.

    Ditto Just Another HR Lady“people will find anything to complain about.”

  10. Rebecca*

    There’s only one problem here: You and your coworkers have taken something that very likely has nothing to do with you, decided that it’s actually all about you, and chosen to be offended.

  11. Anonymous*

    In reading this all I can think (as a manger) is when do people stop with the complaining and give ya a bleeping break?

    Let’s just remember that being promoted to manager does not imbue you ESP. In my office, and in countless others I know that being the boss and always being present is a “downer” to the employees who’d like to kick back at lunch a little. How do you know this isn’t your boss’ perspective?

    I think too often people expect way too much from their managers in terms of knowing what to do, so give this guy a break and the benefit of the doubt.

    So no don’t be offended, and take it easy on the guy, he sounds like he is really being a pretty good boss in the end.

  12. Anonymous*

    I do lots of temp work and can’t help but notice that in so many offices being “friends” rather than doing the job appears to be more important. Also being a “boss” automatcially means “bad boss”, no matter what style or personality manager is.
    While I agree that it’s nice to work in a friendly, supportive environment, I can’t help noticing that the first thing that new colleagues, particularly women do “to get to know you a little” is to start checking out one’s personal life, especially marital status. Somehow they all have to know in great detail – are you married? are you seeing someone? how did you meet? how old is he? what is he doing for a living? when is the date? And finally, a big one – when will you introduce him to the office, so – that we all have more details to gossip about on our work “flex” time……
    I find it very offensive that inevitably, sooner or later women colleagues would start getting their noses into my underware. They never seem to be interested in anything else – the latest interesting article I’ve read, the class I’ve attended on the weeekend…. And perhaps that’s why your boss wants to stay out of the picture, particularly when it comes to baby showers, etc. Have it ever occured to you that for a guy it might be quite embarassing subject given that many modern women are not shy and take pleasure in talking about “the details”….??
    The other reason could be and I agree with all the postings above, no matter what you do, as a boss, one gets discussed, criticized, and scrutinized by subordinates. And when it comes to relationship, staff takes it personally no matter how small or big the issue is, IF there’s an issue at all…. When was it the last time when you wrote a Thank You card to your manager to simply say that you appreciated his being sensitive, thoughtful, caring, supportive – thanking him for anything that he did??
    Get down to work, people, and remember your work place is not your social club! Allow your manager to have a final word at least sometime!

  13. Anonymous*

    There could be other issues here related to specifically to food itself more than the work situation. I have coworkers with Celiac Disease and significant food allergies – it is difficult for them to be in group situations where many foods they are unable to eat are present. They prefer to eat alone and socialize in non-meal settings. There are some people who simply have issues with others seeing them eat.

  14. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    We had the same issue recently in my workplace. The new CEO was not attending most of our informal workplace events. This made many of our employees rather angry when coupled with the fact that he never attempted to “get to know them” during the day to day. Finally someone brought it to his attention and he has worked on improving the situation. While some people here don’t seem to think it’s a big deal it is when it starts to seriously affect the perception people have of you especially when you’re in a high level position.

  15. Anonymous*

    I’ve never understood the need some people seem to have to want to be buddies with everyone they work with.

    I like to go to work, do my job, collect my check and get on with my life. My obligation to co-workers is to be professional and couteous, not to be best buddies.

    If your world revolves around office socialization this much that you’re upset the boss doesn’t join the tea party, you need to get out and make some friends on the outside.

  16. Steve*

    Same situation here actually! Although we found a solution in our organization. I have a boss who (1) doesn't attend many events and (2) buys the occasional pizza (or tacos) for his staff. No kidding, same situation as the reader's. And, he's only been around for a couple of years.

    In this case, however, I know what's making the manager tick this way. Alison nailed it on the head: my boss is overloaded with responsibilities, he believes his presence would hinder an open environment, and, he definitely has a shy side. I discovered this because we've become good friends over the past couple of years, and a few (or several) drinks have been shared in that time.

    The best way to draw him out of his shell has been to just drop by his office for casual chats. 15-20 people at a gathering might be too big of one for the reader's boss, so maybe something more intimate would be inviting (max 5).

    The reader's boss is admittedly new. It's quite challenging for someone at a higher level to integrate with lower levels of an organization. It often comes down to lucky milestone events, and patient, perceptive, and empathetic individuals to reach up to draw the turtle out of the shell.

    Great, creative blog by the way!


  17. TheLabRat*

    I hate office parties. THey always feel so fake. I think it's very sweet of him to kick in for food and let you have the functions. Maybe he has social anxiety. THat's half of my dysfunction.

  18. Rindle*

    I agree with the tone of the comments above. One other observation: he’s been her boss for an entire year and she’s still calling him the “new” guy. I imagine he’s picking up on the “you’re an outsider” vibe, and he may not feel at all comfortable with this group of besties!

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