should I have blown off a family dinner to attend a work event?

A reader writes:

I thought you could help settle a dispute my husband and I just had. My boss just now invited me to a reception to a professional conference happening this weekend. I was thrilled to be asked, but politely (and apologetically) declined because we have a long-standing dinner reservation with my husband’s family and his elderly godmother, who is an amazing woman and we haven’t been able to see her in several months. Of course, both events start at exactly the same time. My husband thinks I should have blown off dinner and attended the reception; I feel my decision was correct based on the plans involved and the fact I didn’t receive much notice for the reception. Had I had something less important planned, I would have certainly skipped it. Did I just commit a career blunder? I do make an effort to attend work functions in general, and I think the higher-ups know that.

If this were a purely social question, the decision would be easy. If you accept one social invitation, you don’t cancel later if something better comes along. The plans you make first take precedence, unless you’re sick or injured or have a death in the family, etc. (This isn’t just my tyrannical opinion; this is the rule laid out in every etiquette book ever written … which I have a ridiculous shelf full of, from a 1937 copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette to a 2011 Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.)

But it’s slightly more complicated when work is involved. Even my shelf full of etiquette experts agree that business conflicts can sometimes take precedence, depending on the relative importance of the two commitments. If your company’s server is down and you’re the only one who can fix it, that probably trumps meeting a group of friends for casual drinks. But if the work need is non-urgent and non-important, your prior commitment wins out.

So the question here is:  How important was attending this conference? If it’s like every conference I’ve ever been to, I’d say … not very. But you have more information about than I do, and so only you can make that judgment call. (Although if it was crucial, I’d hope your boss would have given you more notice of it.)

In any case, if I invited an employee to attend a conference reception the upcoming weekend and was told they already had plans, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. People have lives and commitments outside of work. Reasonable managers do sometimes expect people to do things outside of normal work hours, but those things are planned for well in advance, emergencies, or flexible if they conflict with something else.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    I was surprised – I was expecting to see a question about someone’s spouse being upset that a dinner was blown off for work…so this is an interesting twist.

    I have nothing to offer since I would choose dental work over most social functions – so my own work would definitely get top billing.

    But I did want to applaud the reference to Miss Manner’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. It’s one of my top five favorite books of all time – and this is a reminder to go out and get the newest edition.

    1. danr*

      No way… as much as I dislike social functions, dental work is much further down on the list. Unless the pain can’t be ignored any longer.

  2. jmkenrick*

    Incidentally, you know you are officially a successful advice expert when someone starts off their question with “I hope you can settle a debate between…” That’s how all the best Dear Abby’s start off.

  3. Jonathan*

    If the work event requires your attendance, than you need to make a judgment call. I find that in most work events, you can blow it off and not have any serious repercussions. Don’t take your families for granted.

      1. Kou*

        I’ve had a grand total of one, I think. To be honest, I have thought before that I wish you would give alternatives for when the manager/coworker/whoever in question is not reasonable. Dealing with reasonable people is easy; dealing with your entirely unreasonable bosses is like playing Minesweeper.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I definitely hear you on that. I do often try to give alternatives (your boss will do X or Y; if X, then do this; if Y, then do this), but … well, it gets exhausting to do that in every post, so I try to reserve that for when questions where there’s a high chance of a wide range of reactions. With this one, I figured she’d have mentioned it if her boss was unreasonable/a jerk/etc.

        2. Camellia*

          Don’t these fall into your ‘magic eight-ball’ answer of, ” Your manager is insane; find a new job”?

    1. VintageLydia*

      My husband’s company is very very aware of the importance of work/life balance and is reasonable from C-level execs right down to his direct boss. But this is IT in the DC area so there is a lot of competition to retain good people here.

    2. Jeb-Ray Gumpeater*

      I suspect if there really was such an abundace of “reasonable managers”, this blog would have virtual tumbleweeds blowing by…

  4. ChristineH*

    If it was important enough, your boss should’ve given you more notice about the reception. How receptive was he to your declining?

    I don’t think there’s one right answer and one I know I’d have trouble with if it were me. If I felt a work function would be important to my career, I’d probably take that over a get-together with family or friends. On the flip-side, if it were a close family member or friend who we rarely get to see, I’d be hesitant to blow that off for a work function.

    Bottom line – It’s a matter of weighing the importance of each for YOU.

  5. Craig*

    In my opinion, family trumps all work situations that are outside of the normal work hours. I would not feel guilty at all.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      This…generally.

      IT is different in terms of emergencies, but the management has to define what an emergency is.

    2. Jamie*

      Not all careers allow things to be so cut and dried.

      Yes, my family is more important than my work in the big picture sense. I would definitely save my sisters from a burning building before going back for my co-workers.

      However, if missing a work event to have dinner with my sisters could hurt my prospects at work – then going to the work event is putting my kids/spouse (also family) first since they benefit from my career financially.

      I just don’t think it’s as easy as having ‘always and never’ rules. The right thing to do is always dependent on the two events and the benefits and ramifications of missing each.

  6. I wish I could say*

    In general, family trumps work for me. (This after years of killing myself for a couple of different employers who have done me very wrong.)
    In this type of situation, I ask myself which event I think I’ll regret more for not attending after the fact.
    (I have also lost quite a few dear family/friends and would now give anything to be able to spend more time with them.)

  7. Blinx*

    You can take cues from the language your boss used for the invite. “If you’re not doing anything Saturday, I’ve got an extra ticket to this reception…” vs. “I strongly recommend that you attend this reception…” Sounds like he was being nice and offering you a perk. If you are into networking, conference receptions are great opportunities. Plus, some are held in interesting venues and have great food and entertainment! But that’s only if you didn’t have other plans. I don’t think you’ll regret keeping your family commitment.

    1. fposte*

      And if you have a decent relationship with your boss, you can even ask him about the value of the opportunity and the likelihood of its recurring. Since my staff is largely young people early in their career, I often give them more information that allows them to triage, since a lot of events that look shiny because of their novelty to early career folks are actually pretty unnecessary.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      This!

      There’s no cut-and-dried answer to this question. It depends on so many factors — is your boss reasonable? Are there other people beyond your boss who can positively or negatively impact your job who will be pleased if you attend/annoyed if you don’t? What are the benefits of attending the event? What is the nature of the family event — is it a quick meetup for burgers or is it someone’s wedding? And so on and so forth.

      I’d say that it’s crucial to have the hierarchy of your values very strongly anchored in your brain, so that decisions like these are generally no-brainers. By this I don’t mean set a hard-and-fast rule that family always wins; I mean that you have a very good understanding in your head of when work trumps family, and vice versa.

      I’m fortunate right now to work for a boss who will both tell me when a work request is truly important and when it isn’t, and will listen to me when I say that my plans are important. (Sometimes they aren’t, and I accommodate the request, so it goes both ways.) He’s not my parent, but I almost feel like it’s right to say he “raised me right” (since I’ve worked with him for several years at 3 different companies now) — to have that ranking solidly established in my head so that I don’t have to hem or haw or feel guilty when I choose one way or the other.

  8. AnotherAlison*

    In general, it’s probably not a big deal. Your boss probably just had an extra ticket or whatever for the reception and thought you might be interested.

    However, it does send a message that you don’t want to drop your personal plans at the last minute for work. That can be a good message to send, but if you’re in a competitive type of job, maybe not. Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I’ve rearranged personal plans a couple times to go to conferences at the last minute (out of state ones). I think if my VP asks me to do that, it’s worth doing it for my personal reputation. I also think it’s a privilege to go to these things — nice hotels, expensive conference fees — so I respect the fact that I’m being asked, and I want to continue to be asked. I wouldn’t miss my sister’s wedding or something like that, but I have missed 4 out of 5 days of my father in law visiting from out of state and have flown directly to a conference from a vacation. Most of the time I have plenty of notice and no conflicts, but I do go out of my way to make it work as needed.

    1. Blinx*

      I think the OP was just invited to a reception, not the whole conference. I agree, getting to go to an out of state conference for something in my field IS something I would rearrange plans for. But this sounded more like a local, freebie event prior to the actual conference.

      1. Cassie*

        This sounds similar to a situation I was in recently. There was a conference followed by a dinner that my boss and other faculty were attending. One of the faculty couldn’t attend so there was an extra ticket for dinner – my boss asked if I wanted to go (as he put it – so it wouldn’t look bad having an empty seat).

        I thought about it but decided against attending – the venue was 50 miles away, I couldn’t carpool with anyone (since they were all going to the conference beforehand), I don’t have a car so I’d have to rent a car and hope my boss would foot the bill, and I just didn’t feel like sitting at a table eating dinner with a bunch of faculty and feel like an interloper (there weren’t going to be any other staff there). I ended up passing the invite to another staff member (who works in fundraising and such – would definitely appreciate the opportunity to network). My boss didn’t care either way.

    2. The Snarky B*

      I agree that this totally depends on the field. I’ve noticed that some super huge tech fields have conferences where the reception is like… A cash bar or snacks (I wrote “horse d’ourvrereses” three times before I gave up) at the convention center and people sit with their colleagues from work, then there are psychology conferences where the reception is 100 people, 5 of whom are national figures of importance and you can introduce yourself ala once in a lifetime networking opportunity

  9. karenb*

    I have also lost quite a few dear family/friends and would now give anything to be able to spend more time with them

    This +1000

  10. Zee*

    I’m sitting here, on the fence, being able to argue both teams, and I still haven’t come to a conclusive solution or reason that tips the balance to one side.

    I’m leaning, though, towards going to the family event. First of all, the boss just invited you today to something that probably has been planned fora while. You’ve made plans to visit an elderly relative who would probably absolutely love to see you and your husband and doesn’t get to too often. If you change those plans or skip entirely, you’re building a slippery slope in which your boss can think he can tear you away from family anytime.

    But on the hand, will you be knocked down a few pegs in your work’s mind if you skip this conference? Can they play dirty and treat you condescendingly if you don’t? Of course I don’t know your situation, and I don’t mean to look at it negatively. But like what someone wrote above, how did your boss take the decline in invitation?

    1. AmyRenee*

      I’m going to second that the conference has been planned for a while and you are being invited last minute because someone else can’t go or the company was given extra last minute tickets. If your boss ASKED you if you could go, you are ok declining – if he TOLD you to go you might have just shot yourself in the foot.
      If he is going, follow up on Monday with a “did you enjoy the conference, sorry I couldn’t make it this time but I’d like to be included if a future opportunity comes up” email.

      1. fposte*

        I like the followup idea–it makes clear you’re interested in doing something like this and your unavailability was situational.

      2. Zee*

        I had thought about that too, and I was going to mention that the OP might ask the boss to grab her a collection of hand-outs and other paperwork given at the conference so she could at least review it and have it on hand.

  11. KellyK*

    I think that less than a week is pretty short notice, and that for a work event to be obligatory on that short notice, it really needs to be an emergency. Attending a reception for a conference isn’t even on the same planet as an emergency.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t situations where you should go because it would benefit your career, or because your manager takes things like that personally, or whatever. But I would have to have a very compelling reason to blow off weekend plans, and I would think less of a boss who expected it for something like this.

  12. some1*

    I agree that you should go the dinner with the in-laws, however, I have worked at places where these types of events are billed as optional but the people who don’t attend are looked down upon. But I am assuming the LW doesn’t work somewhere like that or it would be mentioned.

    1. twentymilehike*

      I have worked at places where these types of events are billed as optional but the people who don’t attend are looked down upon

      Yes, this. Depending on how the invite is worded and the standard in your industry, some people can absoutely tell if their job/reputation/income is on the line! If it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and you are a reasonable person, then probably you’re okay to skip out on it.

      My company attendeds (along with basically our whole industry) a major event onces a year. I asked this past year if I could skip out on it (well ahead of time) and my direct boss was fine with that, especially since we had a new sales person they wanted to take and they were trying to cut expenses (I had some personal things I wanted to do). Well anyhow, BIG BOSS, to this day, gives me a load of crap for not going and is a jerk about reminding me that “oh, I’d send you other places if I thought you were committed enough, but now I know your not.” … (which in my case I know for a fact is an empty threat, but it sure is annoying as all hell!)

  13. Eric*

    Not really related, but sort of, some social etiquette manuals (I know at least the military ones) make one exception to the first-commitment takes priority rule: Invitations to the White House, regardless of when they are made, require you to excuse yourself from most other obligations.

    1. TL*

      Should I receive an invitation to the White House, I do believe the majority of people I know would be understanding. :P

      I think the most commonly followed rule is: Go with your first acceptance unless something wonderful, awesome, & rare comes up and then ask permission from your first commitment to beg off-whilst acknowledging it’s a terrible thing to do- and reschedule ASAP (based on their convenience, not yours).

    2. Elizabeth*

      That’s what it says in every edition of Emily Post I’ve seen, as well. Including if you’re hosting the party, you should inform everyone that your event has been postponed and why.

    3. class factotum*

      If you are in the military and your boss invites you to the White House, that is not a social event. The president is the big boss of the military, so I would see an invitation as a command.

      I would say that for civilians, we are not required to accept an invitation to the WH. Depending on who is in it, I might want to go or not want to go.

      I would also want to know what they are serving for supper.

      1. Camellia*

        “Depending on who is in it, I might want to go or not want to go.

        I would also want to know what they are serving for supper.”

        Snorting tea out my nose is NOT cool! :D

  14. Anonymous*

    You may also want to find a way to indicate to your boss that you are interested in future events – it’s possible that your declining could mean that you aren’t invited next time, unless you make it clear you would like to do so.

    (Disclosure: I once declined a lunch invitation with my boss because of a presentation by an outside speaker at the same time. Despite a great working relationship with the boss, I was never asked to lunch again.)

  15. OP*

    Thanks for all the great feedback. I feel much better about my decision knowing that many of you would have done the same or at least understood why I would make that choice. I think those who suggested following up with my boss and letting him know I’d be interested in future events are right on target and I will do that first thing Monday. Thanks again everyone!

  16. Mishsmom*

    imo even if her boss was being unreasonable or does not understand that she has plans, it doesn’t matter. i worked for someone like that years ago… she was the type who would come in with 102 fever and when she had a baby she came in the next day so she did not understand anyone having to take any time off for any reason. just because the boss doesn’t understand does not mean you should give in to that. in the end you will have spent time with loved ones who may not be around for that much longer and the boss will still not understand anyway… you might as well make sure you do what your heart tells you (not sure i’m saying this right, i hope you get my drift).

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Well…going against an unreasonable boss has repercussions. In a competitive workplace, it could mean being passed over for a promotion or being the first to be let go during layoffs because other workers are “more dedicated.” Or it could be something less severe like another poster mentioned — that the boss continues to bring it up months or even years later, creating an unpleasant work environment.

      This is not to say that anyone with an unreasonable boss should acquiesce to every demand — but you do have to consider the potential consequences and whether or not you’re willing to deal with them.

  17. Camellia*

    Hmm. The original question was “to settle a debate”. I am curious to know if OP’s husband often blows off dinner and/or other family activities for work, and if so, why. Maybe for his work this would be a total career-killer and that is why he thinks she should have done the same.

    1. Jamie*

      Maybe he just didn’t want to go.

      I try to get out of any family gathering and if I could talk my husband into “having to work” so I could stay home (would be a shame to go without him) I totally would.

      I really need to give up my addition to baseless speculation.

    2. OP*

      Op here. He really hasn’t had to make that choice since he changed jobs earlier this year. thankfully, his professional events tend to be well planned so there isn’t much of a chance of something like this happening. He just feels that when your boss asks you to attend a function, if you can go you should, even if it is a last minute invite. If our situations were reversed, I think he would bail on dinner and I would be annoyed. However, we depend on his salary and not really on mine, so I do understand why he would feel more obligated to choose work. Still annoying though :)

  18. Anonymous*

    I recently had a similar situation. With a week’s notice, my boss invited/asked me to attend an out-of-state conference, over a weekend, immediately before another week-long out-of-state training.

    My job already requires around 50% travel, so I’m very careful to only attend things that require me to be away from home if they are critical/valuable/etc. My standards for that are very high. It’s possible that I’m going to come into conflict with my bosses about this at some point!

  19. iceyone*

    It would depend on a few things for me!

    1 – Who asked. I know this shouldn’t matter, but if it could get me front and center with some people who are higher up in the company/could make a career move happen then i may think about it.

    2 – Is it with my family or extended family (and do I like them!)

    3 – How much notice am I being given.

    4 – Will it effect my standing at work – every company operates differently – if your boss is like Miranda Priestly then you may have to grin and bare it!

    5 – How long will I have to be there.

    If I’m unsure how they’ll react, I’ll attend and if it’s boring I’ll excuse myself after a couple of hours.

  20. trailing off...*

    These comments made me recall when one of my bosses asked if I had lunch plans. Thinking that was an invitation, I was taken by surprise when he pulled out money and gave me his lunch order instead of going to lunch with me. Of course, I delivered, but afterwards his admin told me to never do that for him again.

  21. ooloncoluphid*

    Personal life wins. Nobody ever wishes on their death bed that they’d been able to attend just one more meeting or write just one more report.

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