can my company prohibit me from socializing with coworkers?

A reader writes:

Can my company tell me on one hand that I should not go out to dinner with coworkers and then force me to attend team dinners after a 3-hour team meeting? Can I say no to attending?

Can my company tell me that I cannot go out to eat with co-workers?

You can’t say no to attending team dinners if your employer requires them. (Well, you could say no, but they could fire you for refusing.) However, they do need to pay you for this time if you’re non-exempt.

However, what’s their rationale for telling you that you can’t go out to dinner with coworkers?  Depending on the answer to that, there’s a good chance that’s illegal.

Times when they could tell you not to dine with coworkers:

* Dinnertime falls during work, and they want to stagger your breaks rather than having a bunch of you gone at once.

* The dinner is actually a date, and you’re the date’s manager.

* The nature of your job is one that gives them legal cover for controlling who you socialize with. For instance, there was a case a while ago where a court ruled that it was legal for a company to prohibit security guards from socializing with other employees, because it could compromise security.

But absent a legitimate reason like these, they’re on very thin ice trying to prevent you from socializing with coworkers outside of work hours. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prevents employers from interfering with employees discussing wages and working conditions with each other … and even if you weren’t talking about work at all at these dinners, a prohibition on them would likely be considered to have a chilling effect on your rights under the NLRA.

Bryan Cavanaugh, an employment lawyer in Missouri, was kind enough to weigh in on this question and says:

Some states, including New York and California, have laws that explicitly protect an employee’s lawful activities off the clock and off the employer’s premises. However, barring that type of law, there is no direct answer. From a management standpoint, I share your reaction that the directive is bizarre. I’d be curious about the back story. Does the manager consider these co-workers a bad influence on the employee and is instructing the employee not to hang out with those “bad seeds,” like a parent would? Perhaps there is a more legitimate, business-related reason for the directive, such as the manager is encouraging the employee to get involved with industry groups, or to be networking or entertaining clients in the evening instead of socializing with co-workers.

From a legal perspective, assuming we’re not in a state such as New York or California, the employer is opening itself up to liability, assuming this is truly a non-work related directive. If the employer is simply trying to control an employee’s private life or social life, then that directive could likely be an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act, as well as a violation of common law privacy laws.

You are right to be concerned about this directive violating the NLRA, which applies to all private sector employers except very small ones. While the employees would not necessarily be discussing workplace conditions and therefore engaging in “protected concerted activity,” the NLRB has been focusing more recently on whether policies on their face violate the NLRA by creating a “chilling effect” on concerted activity. The NLRA has found certain policies themselves violate Section 8 of the NLRA by creating a “chilling effect,” which means discouraging employees from engaging in protected concerted activity in the first place…

If the employer can point to a specific duty the employee is neglecting, such as failing to attend an evening networking event, or entertaining clients, then the employer may be able to prohibit this socialization. But for an employer to prohibit generally an employee from socializing with co-workers off the clock and off premises is dangerous and likely unlawful directive to an employee.

So there you have it. But I want to know more about your employer’s rationale for telling you not to eat with coworkers. Can you reply in the comments with more context?

P.S. If this all makes you wonder if it’s legal for an employer to ban dating among coworkers (aside from just manager-employee dating), the answer is yes. Employers have successfully argued they have a legitimate business interest in banning office dating, since it can cause all sorts of workplace issues that have nothing to do with the NLRA.

{ 63 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I wonder if the OP is discussing going out to dinner with co-workers while there is also a team dinner happening at the same time. I find that exclusionary and in poor manners.

    1. Mike C.*

      Nosey coworkers looking to score points with the boss. I find in workplaces with crazy rules you find people who are more than willing to play along to score a promotion. It’s rather disgusting to be honest.

  2. Nethwen*

    To clarify, the company has to pay you for your time, but they don’t have to pay for your dinner? If so, then they are requiring you to pay in order to work?

    (Side note: Isn’t paying for the opportunity to work a hallmark of a scam?)

    1. Joey*

      While it would be crappy not to pick up the tab the op could just not order anything if they’re worried about paying the bill.

  3. $.02*

    Strange situation; I began working at this firm when I was a sophomore along with 3 close classmates. We graduated and all got full time offers at this same company — please tell me how can u regulate our social life? We ve had ping pong drinking games in college and all that shud stop cos we’re full time now? Please!

    1. Interviewer*

      I’m confused – is $.02 this question’s OP? Because if so, maybe the drinking games led to next-day hangovers for all of them, and the employer is trying to cure a serious absenteeism or productivity problem that occurs when they all go out together. Misguided on the employer’s side, yes, and not typical. Certainly understandable if it was a regular occurance and highly frustrating to management. I would cure the problem by addressing it with the existing policy manual, instead of making up new rules that only apply to them. Maybe one day these guys will figure out they need to save their beer pong for Friday nights, like the rest of us!

      1. $.02*

        Sorry I am not the “asker,” I was jus giving my $.02, that’s a different but similar situation I was in!

    2. Rachel*

      “We ve had ping pong drinking games in college and all that shud stop cos we’re full time now?”

      …Yes, actually.

      1. Mike C.*

        Yes, because responsible adults blowing off some steam in the privacy of their own homes is such a terrible thing.

          1. Mike C.*

            Please tell me there’s a certificate that goes along with that, I’d love to have it framed. ;)

            1. Ry*

              I love this formula. Please tell me it also applies to the text-message-style spelling and grammar so amply demonstrated by Mr./Ms. $0.02!

              NB: I abbreviate text too – in text messages – so I’m not trying to sound catty! Mouthy, maybe, but not catty.

          2. KellyK*

            You still blow off steam with your friends—you just drink better booze and call it a dinner party.

            (Says the girl who has never played beer pong, not even in college, but still plays D&D.)

            1. Jamie*

              This. Because at some point you realize how freaking unsanitary that ball is and thus how contaminated your beer is.

              Same goes for quarters.

              1. Emily*

                OK, but what about flip cup? I was never young enough not to find beer pong revolting, but I’m pretty sure you’re never too old to flip.

  4. Mike C.*

    Ten internet dollars says that this is a small family company run by a micromanaging parent who don’t want undesirable employees spending time with their employed children outside of work.

    Anyone else feel like speculating before the OP jumps in to give us the real story? :p

  5. Jamie*

    “If the employer can point to a specific duty the employee is neglecting, such as failing to attend an evening networking event, or entertaining clients, then the employer may be able to prohibit this socialization.”

    I would still find this a lousy argument from an employer. Sure, how people accountable for mandatory attendance and work related events – but to forbid socializing with co-workers because an evening event was missed seems to miss the point.

    I mean, if you missed an event because you took your mom to dinner could they limit contact with your parents?

    Then again, so many laws seem illogical to me.

  6. Anonymous*

    The only reasons I can think of for this rule are: a) the company knows that dating in the workplace can lead to huge problems and assumes that casual office relationships pose similar risks, or b) they want to limit your contact with co-workers to office hours so you’ll be much less likely to discuss salary, complain about management, utter the word ‘union,’ etc.

    So it seems like something finally came up which might not be legal…and yet the options are almost surely the same: deal or quit. I don’t know why we even have labor laws if there’s no real recourse for the employee.

  7. Anonymous*

    My only guess is that the employer is trying, indirectly and hamfistedly, to prevent employees from getting into romantic relationships with one another. Does this employer have an explicit policy on that?

  8. ThatHRGirl*

    I echo your sentiment that this “ban” is ridiculous.

    I dealt with a “socialization” problem at my last job – a warehouse environment where there was a lot of socialization both at work and after-hours, between hourly associates and low-level management (group leads and supervisors). We had a lot of problems with rumors, favoritism, drama from the bar coming into the workplace, dating and secret relationships between management & staff, etc. It was a mess.

    My solution – a come-to-Jesus talk/training class with the entire management team about socialization with peers and subordinates. We talked about the benefits, certainly – getting to know your coworkers and subordinates can definitely be important. But we talked about the risks as well. If you give your subordinate a ride home every day, don’t be surprised if rumors are started about you, or if another subordinate alleges favoritism. If you go out to the bar with your coworkers and make an ass out of yourself, don’t be surprised if it gets back to everyone at work, and no one takes you seriously.

    Everyone was treated like adults and INFORMED rather than policed. They were told they could make their own decisions, but they would have to deal with the consequences. I can’t stand when companies like OP’s want to treat people like children.

    1. Mike C.*

      But that’s just common sense and stuff, you can’t expect the modern business to be run like that!

    2. Joey*

      Im curious, why the shotgun approach instead of just speaking to the problem children? Surely there were managers who already had their head on straight?

      1. ThatHRGirl*

        Honestly, not really. Everyone had done something stupid or inappropriate at that point… and I was also trying to prevent future acts of stupidity.

      2. KellyK*

        I think if at least half the people you’re talking to are doing it, the shotgun approach is warranted. If it’s just a couple people, then it’s better to just talk to those couple people.

  9. Jennifer*

    Thanks for answering this one AAM. I asked you a very similar question and unfortunately you probably didn’t have the time time answer (my company doesn’t allow socializing outside of work for the first year). Luckily, this answers my question. Unluckily- I am in NY, which means it sounds like what my company is doing could be a problem.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, I still have yours on my list, since it’s slightly different. If I’m remembering correctly, yours was more of an unofficial practice, not a rule, right?

      1. Jennifer*

        That’s true – it really is more of an unofficial rule (not on the books or anything). That said, it has been said to new hires by both superiors and the training office, and worries me enough not to do it for fear of repercussions.

          1. Jennifer*

            Well thank you very much for your quick answer. Any advice on how to handle this? It certainly won’t kill me to skip drinks after work for a while, and I like the job otherwise.

            Sorry to hijack the comments

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I’d try to find out why this unofficial rule is there. Either ask your boss outright (a totally normal thing to do) or ask a coworker. Then decide how you want to handle it.

  10. KellyK*

    Wow, an “Is this legal?” question with a “Probably not” answer! That’s what, two so far in the last couple months?

  11. Anonymous*

    Does this same scenario apply to co-workers being told by the employer not to contact an injured worker out on medical leave?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Do you know what the reason is? It might be a situation where they want to ensure that the person on leave isn’t bothered with work-related questions.

  12. Anonymous*

    No, I am not certain of the reason, only that co-workers were instructed to have no contact. How could that even be enforceable?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s reasonable for them to say that you can’t contact with the coworker with anything work-related while she’s out, because they want her to be able to truly have time away and because they don’t want to be on the hook for paying her for work time if you call her with a work question.

  13. Anonymous*

    Ok, that part makes sense. But if it is outside of work and not work related, they really couldn’t enforce it? Thanks for your insight.

  14. Anonymous*

    Thank you for the follow up. The reason behind everything is very detailed. so I will do my best to keep it short. I went through a very nasty divorce where my exhusband contacted my place of business and made false accusations. In the process of he provided pictures that were taken during the weekend of a long business trip. After the accusations and pictures (of dancing with a group of females – which included a female co-worker) the end result was HR telling me that I was better off getting another job and going forward I was not to be found socailizing with co-workers after work. I should just go back to the hotel room and stay there. This has made it very difficult for me to accomplish anything in the company. I was called a liar and immature due to the accusations from my ex and finding another job has not been a viable option for myself.I also am not able to discuss the situation with anyone in my organization or else. However my new boss loves to have team dinners and outings and get everyone involved but I am not comfortable with it nor can i discuss this with him. Thankfully there is always something that needs to be taken care of during these team dinners so i have not had to attend one yet while I was in office.

  15. Joseph*

    I live in Florida and this just come up at my fast food company I work for. They are saying that managers cannot have any outside contact with employees. No phone calls, text messaging, Facebook, or socializing. Is this legal? Is this Violation off my rights? What gives them authority to say who I talk to outside of my workplace and while I’m not on company time?

  16. New Manager*

    I was promoted to a manager position recently. One week into my new job I was informed that I have to delete everyone on my Facebook page who I would have authority over. Current managers have their subordinates on their Facebook page. Can they ask me to do that? Is that legal? I was friends with many of these people long before I was promoted.

  17. Pooja*

    Hello All,
    Im happy to have found this thread and have an urgent matter that concerns me. I was wondering if the reasons my employer is giving for prohibiting contact (at all times) with particular person is a valid exception.

    The employer has asked that all employees are not to contact an ex-coworker that the company fired several months ago. The reasons why they let him go was that he was using the company’s computer systems for personal communications. That being said I was friends with this person so we kept in touch. He moved on to other things, 3 months later the employer sends out an email stating that everyone was banned from having any contact with this person ever again due to “security reasons”?! if they are actually afraid of this person, and they have real reasons to believe as such, why should they involve my personal relationship?! or why don’t they just go to the police if they have “security” concerns?
    Does this request constitute a violation of my freedom to associate with whomever I chose outside of the work place?

    Thank you.

  18. CB*

    Hi, this is random, but my husband is an assistant-manager at a Pizza Place. Sometimes we meet up with his friends at work for some In N Out or he goes golfing with them, or we want to have them over for a movie night. He just got home from a manager meeting (there is one General manager, two assistant-managers, and two regular managers) and told me that favoritism needs to stop. For example, he cannot go in to a room, have a conversation with an employee that is his friend, and leave the room without talking to another employee because that is favoritism. He cannot go out with a group of other employees because it is favoritism and another co-worker may see them and feel left out. He cannot invite people over for dinner or a movie UNLESS THEY ARE ANOTHER MANAGER. Does this make sense? Doesn’t this violate some sort of legal right? I’m just upset because some of those friends are my friends, too. And we had a big movie night planned and now we can’t have them over, only one of the managers. Does this make any sense? I DO know that the other assistant-manager used to be good friends with my husband and now no longer is “close”. He goes in after my husband makes the schedule and changes EVERYTHING… is rude and talks down to my husband, etc. I’m just extremely confused… thanks for the help!

  19. jose*

    Because they said i always try to get employes against company cause they ask me for advise wen company do something wrong against them .

  20. Pauline*

    Can your employer forbid you from engaging in a conversation with your co-worker during work hours. This is an non- union business. What rights do these workers have?

  21. kris*

    My company was just bought out. Because of this several people left and went to another company in the same industry. We were told we cannot have any contact with them. They even made us sign a paper about this. Our industry has no secrets. Even our customers are known to each other. Is this legal in NY? How can they tell me i can’t be friends with someone outside of work?

  22. Airy*

    I’m a 26 yr old female living out of the country while working on a job, but my boss and I live in the US. I signed a confidentiality agreement. and When I go out with people from work on the weekends he tells me he doesn’t like me hanging around them bc he is paranoid I will talk about work. He says he has warned me before but he is leaving it up to me to make the “right” decision. I know he is over stepping his boundaries and after reading this article, on the line of legality he is testing, it makes me feel better. However, I’m alone, and completely overworked and not compensated for it.. the least I should be able to do is let loose on the weekends and I cant even do that bc it gives me anxiety knowing I have restrictions at an age I shouldnt be having such ridiculous restrictions at.. I know no one, and the people I enjoy going out with on the weekends happen to be the people that he doesn’t want me hanging around. not only do I feel like he is acting like a “dad” but my own parents cant even do this. if you were me, what would you do? I cant just sit at home and not socialize bc “those people” might end up coming out with us. what do I tell him.. I dont know my boss.. ive only been working for him for 2 months.. How do you handle a situation like this.. and What do you say??

  23. Concerned*

    If the employees is the HR Director can Management prohibit her to eat lunch daily and have weekly elaborate pot lucks with a handful non-HR employees? She puts on a big production and only 6 out of the 60 employees are included. She stepped it up a notch and included the CFO and CEO, and rubbing it into others that she cannot be touched. Since the top management joins them, what can the other employees do. This HR Director also socializes with these few employees outside of work.

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