new employee invited her spouse to an office lunch

A reader writes:

I have an administrator who I recently hired (about a month ago) and I’m not sure how to handle this situation.

We had a local vendor of ours provide lunch on a Friday to the entire company as a customer service gesture. There are approximately 400 people in our building, so they grilled outside for everyone. My employee invited her husband to come meet her for lunch, so he ate with everyone else. My question is whether or not to say anything to her about it.

We have several events a year that spouses and/or families are invited to, but this was not one of them. There are so many people in the company that I’m not sure that anyone (other than those in our small department) noticed he was there and wasn’t an employee. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, but if everyone invited their spouse to lunch, that would have been an additional 400 people that our vendor did not agree to feed.

I assume that she’s younger and newer to the workforce and maybe just doesn’t know general office norms. I planned on having a casual conversation with her about it, letting her know that it really wasn’t that big of a deal but in the future to keep in mind that families are only invited to specific events. However, when I ran this by a coworker, he was adamantly against saying anything. He said that it makes the company seem like we don’t support the family, and if he had invited his wife and was corrected for doing it, he would be very upset. He asked if it was worth alienating an employee over something this small. It’s not, but I worry that if I don’t say anything now, she will just continue to invite her husband to company things that he is not invited to.

Should I say something to her?

I’d let it go.

If it becomes a pattern, then yes, nicely let her know at that point that while the company does invite spouses to some events, it’ll be specifically noted when that’s the case.

But it might never become a pattern. It’s possible that they were already planning to meet for lunch on that day and so she told him to just come by the company event. Or, sure, it’s possible that this is the start of her bringing him along to other things he’s not invited too — but if that turns out to be the case, you can speak up at that point.

Correcting her over a single incident of something that ultimately didn’t have much impact is likely to feel too heavy-handed. I don’t agree with your coworker that it will make it seem like the company doesn’t support families, but I do think it’ll make her feel kind of crappy and that you’re willing to embarrass her over something that wasn’t that big of a deal. (And frankly, she may have already realized on her own that no one else had a spouse there and is already a little embarrassed, who knows.)

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. Michael*

    Good advice. If she was the only one to do that, it sounds like a slightly embarrassing but inconsequential mistake. Is this the first time there’s been a company-wide free food event where spouses aren’t invited? It’s not clear to me. I think if so, the person on the flyer should probably note employees only. If there’s been a long tradition of employee-only big events without issue until now, then I suppose it’s not needed.

      1. Dan G*

        @Raine: in the case of a new employee I think the advice in the main post is even more spot-on. It may be that she’s coming from an office where this was the norm, or in some other way misread the situation. I’m sure her husband felt pretty awkward, even if she didn’t! The social pressure at that point should have been obvious even to the most socially awkward or culturally unattuned person, and I don’t think many people would need future correction.

        Keeping silent at this point and assuming they have the social graces to have realized their faux pas and not repeat it is more polite than creating an awkward situation by bringing up what might have been a mortifying moment for them on the off chance they missed the hint, especially if it wasn’t a big problem. I agree with the co-worker that said he’d be upset (though I wouldn’t say it says anything about your work’s support of families), because I’d feel “wow, you really think that had to be said? what do you take me for?”

  2. Allison*

    She may have noticed that no one else invited a guest to the office lunch, and has already taken that cue without needing to be explicitly told, and was just really good at taking it in stride rather than show her embarrassment, so I agree with Alison that it makes sense to only say something if she keeps doing it. But I’d still nip it in the bud and say something after the second or third time, maybe the fourth, because if you wait until she’s done it, like, seven times she’s not just gonna feel embarrassed, she’ll wonder why no one said anything before, and you may be much more frustrated with her by then.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        For some reason, I can’t see this becoming a “thing”. If anything, I would think the husband wouldn’t want to continue to meet his wife for lunches if other spouses aren’t there.

      2. Sadsack*

        Second time, say something. Letting it go after that will only make it a more awkward a conversation.

        1. Sadsack*

          And by awkward, I mean for the employee. Knowing she did something wrong a bunch of times with people being silent about it could be embarrassing.

        2. Raine*

          Agree, twice is too many times. I’m clearly in the minority but I happen to think it’s pretty odd that a new employee would just bring along a guest at all, it seems to go so against common office sense. But in any case, one time give her the benefit of the doubt, twice nip it in the bud already.

          1. michelenyc*

            +1 I think it’s odd too! If she does it again then I would say something but once I don’t think needs a conversation.

          2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Eh, I don’t know. I can see how this could happen so easily. My husband is coming to my office to meet me for lunch and we learn that there is going to be lunch provided, outdoors, grilling for 400 people. I’m not at all new to the professional world and I probably would have just invited my husband to join me there rather than going out. In my workplace this would be totally fine – my colleagues would be pleased to meet him, my boss would suggest it if he saw us about to walk out to a restaurant, etc.

            1. mander*

              I’m a bit surprised that this is a big deal. I’ve never worked in a place that would do this, but my sister’s office has lunch provided by vendors almost every day. They love it when other family members or friends turn up for a free lunch, because they usually have too much, and it gives them someone else to chat to. None of the rest of us are in any position to ever use those vendors’ services, either.

              1. MK*

                I would argue that it’s different if it’s a daily thing and employees know there will be too much food. And I think it is a big deal, not because of the act itself, but because most sensible people are still cautious one month into a new job. I think the employee was a bit thoughtless to invite a plus-one without knowing for a fact it was OK.

              2. Beezus*

                If I had vendors feeding my office that regularly, overfeeding even, I’d start to look at the profit margins they were enjoying!

    1. The IT Manager*

      Hmmm … I would have answered differently than AAM (tell her now), but her answer makes sense. Given this was the first time, let it go. She make have assumed that the lunch time grilling was a family event and then looked around and realized that she was wrong and won’t do it again. If it happens a second time, though, I do think you need to say something immediately after the event (not at the event when her husband is there, but later that day). I do disagree with Allison (above me), don’t wait on a third. Be clear that although it might appear to be a social event (give her the benefit of the doubt of just not noticing), it really was a marketing event for the vendor and spouses were not invited.

      I totally disagree with LW’s co-worker. You’re not family unfriendly to not include family in business things like a lunch. Plus in reality, your company is not the host of this event. She invited an outsider to a event which was designed to appeal to the vendor’s customers / help form good relationships / etc.

      1. Not The Droid You Are Looking For*

        I too would have answered differently, but it’s because my role includes the coordination of these partnerships and have been on receiving end of an irate phone call when an employee took two of a vendors promotional items at a trade show event.

        I also find the coworkers reaction pretty strange. How is being told you overstepped anti-family?

      2. Allison*

        My point wasn’t “wait until the third time,” my overall point was that you should nip it in the bud. Alison said to wait to see if it becomes a pattern, but that’s pretty vague, it could mean wait until she does it again or it could mean wait until it’s happened a bunch of times, so I was trying to specify that OP shouldn’t wait that long.

    2. danr*

      I would say something if there is a second time. If it never happens again, it was a new employee mistake.

  3. Artemesia*

    My husband once took me to an event that turned out to be a dinner for only people in his profession; he simply misunderstood as generally evening dinners include spouses and he and one of his partners both brought their spouses. He paid for our meals — it wasn’t a noodge — but of course I felt stupid. And it sure didn’t help when one of his female colleagues made a crack about ‘hey when did you pass the bar exam.’ When someone commits a faux pas especially when it really doesn’t matter much, at least don’t add to the embarrassment. Let is go unless it becomes a pattern. I’ll bet she noticed.

    1. Allison*

      Ugh, I’m sorry people were jerks about it. I agree that if someone makes a mistake like that, giving them a hard time might be amusing to you and others in the room, but it makes them feel worse.

    2. EmmaBlake*

      I think, in this case, the organizers were in the wrong, not your husband and his colleague. After hour dinner is much different than lunch at the workplace. It’s more than reasonable to assume spouses are invited outside of work hours. If not, that needs to be stated.

  4. Cat*

    I think it’s worth noting that being flexible about these things doesn’t mean you’re going to end up paying for 800 meals instead of 400. My office has a bi-weekly (in office) happy hour, and spouses and SOs are welcome to attend. Someone brings a guest probably about once every three months, and even then it’s just one person – by and large, office lunches and the like aren’t that appealing for people who don’t work there and it’s unlikely to become a big issue.

    1. MashaKasha*

      Agree. It’s just not that exciting of an event!

      My poor husband didn’t like attending my work events even when they happened in our own house (we hosted a few.) He’d sit around and nod for a while while everyone else was talking shop or gossiping about absent coworkers, then excuse himself and go upstairs. I can’t imagine 400 spouses turning up for a work lunch.

  5. Lunar*

    Also, as Alison said, it isn’t clear to me if she said to her husband “Hey, there is an event at work on Friday, come and have lunch with me at it,” or if they were planning on meeting for lunch anyway and stopped by the event because it was happening. I think that makes a big difference.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yeah, I definitely think there’s a possibility they were supposed to eat lunch together that day anyway, and that the company lunch was a surprise to them, given the wording.

  6. Snarkus Aurelius*

    You’re making a very big jump in logic here.  

    The event was for roughly 400 -invited- people.  That doesn’t mean they all attended and ate food.  The other big leap is assuming that if spouses were invited, they would all come and eat food.  Because this event was during a workday, that would have cut the spouse participation down significantly.  

    The presence of one extra person, who a majority of people wouldn’t even know if he was an employee or not, in one or both of these scenarios would make no difference in terms of cost/burden.

    If this employee develops a pattern of regularly inviting her spouse, then say something.  But this really isn’t that big of a deal, especially because a vendor wants your business. 

    Saying something makes you sound, well, stingy.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Yeah I can’t see why this is an issue unless it is a pattern. If the OP wrote in after the admin had only been there 3 months and invited her husband to 3 lunches, I would totally get it. Is the OP the only one who has an issue with this? Even her coworker didn’t think it was a big deal.

      Or maybe the type of luncheon is – cookout style, casual, outdoors – is why I feel how I do. I could see this being a “WTH?” if this was a private and formal RSVP work event. But even like Artemesia mentioned above, people misunderstand in situations and may show up a +1.

      1. Steph*

        I thought it was strange and wasn’t really even contemplating saying anything, but I had multiple people in my department approach me and ask if I was going to talk to her. I had not thought about it, so I was taken off guard, but then started contemplating mentioning it to her if so many people thought I should. Honestly, I think that this might have more to do with her marriage dynamics (in an unhealthy way) and have decided not to say anything. Hopefully she caught on to the fact that it was strange and it won’t happen again, and I won’t have to embarrass her by pointing it out.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Thanks for the extra info, OP!

          Interesting that so mnay people noticed it AND commented to you AND specifically asked if you were going to say something.

          Clearly a lot of people minded!

          It would be interesting if her peers make comments to her (it wouldn’t surprise me), and if that clues her in.

    2. Raine*

      I’m actually not on board with this reasoning — to me the fact that it’s not even the employee’s own company footing the bill for this meal makes it an even bigger faux pas on her part. How incredibly embarrassing.

      1. Joanna*

        Embarrassing? Perhaps. *Incredibly* embarrassing? So embarrassing that you have trouble *believing* it? Um, no.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          Can we not do the thing where we nitpick these types of things? People have different experiences and workplaces – in some it’s totally normal that families come to events. In others its Just Not Done. So everyone’s perspective is shaped by their own experiences – it might be incredibly embarrassing in some places.

          1. Joanna*

            (Oh, well there go most of the comments on this post!)

            But seriously, it *might* be incredibly embarrassing in some places, but then again it might not be in others. Why would it be okay for someone to say it is embarrassing and then wrong for someone else to say it isn’t?

              1. Joanna*

                This discussion is getting off-topic I guess, but I think the comment “How incredibly embarrassing”—a comment that, on another day, could honestly make me cry if I were the OP’s employee—warranted a little snark to emphasize that it is a somewhat extreme opinion.

                1. JB (not in Houston)*

                  I think the difference is that as far as we know, the OP’s employee is not reading this to see any snarky comments, but the person you directed your comment at is. I agree with Katie the Fed on this one.

                2. Joanna*

                  To JB (not in Houston):

                  To be clear, just because the OP’s employee herself is not reading this thread, that doesn’t mean that an extreme opinion that could be (unnecessarily) hurtful to someone who has been in a similar situation should not be counteracted.

                  It’s like if I made a comment that I would question the commitment of an applicant who took time from their career to be with their newborn baby, I might expect a snarky reply that emphasizes that it is not usual for interviewers to think that way, even if THAT applicant hadn’t read the original comment. (Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alison had written such a snarky reply herself!)

      2. LawBee*

        really? Incredibly embarrassing? That seems like a stretch. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, were I the OP or really, anyone else in the company. And there’s nothing in the letter to indicate that anyone other than the OP was bothered by it. This is making mountains out of – not even an anthill. A couple of grains of sand.

    3. Rat in the Sugar*

      She’s not being stingy here because she’s not the one paying for it–the vendor is. And it’s not like she’s assuming that if she lets this go than suddenly everyone will bring spouses to absolutely everything, but this is still an employees-only event that was provided to them by a vendor as a gift (customer service-y type gift, but gift nonetheless) and it’s not okay for her to bring her spouse because the gift was not intended for him.
      Still, I agree with Alison that one time isn’t that big of a deal and she should focus more on preventing a pattern of behavior than just this one incident.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Agreed. One time is no big deal she probably just didn’t know or understand it was vendor sponsored. I’ve seen a lot more ballsy stuff than this happen. I used to work with a dude whose wife would drop him off at work sometimes and the whole family would go in the kitchen and help themselves to the free bagels meant for employees. Another place I worked at one of the managers would bring their family to company barbecues during work hours that were for employees only and this guy did it repeatedly never taking notice nobody else had guests.

  7. Ad Astra*

    There’s a very good chance that this employee mistakenly thought spouses were invited (something about the cookout thing makes me think of families) and then was embarrassed when she realized nobody else had brought a spouse. If that’s the case, she was probably trying desperately to act natural and not draw any extra attention to her mistake.

    If she turns out to be one of those people who thinks her spouse is invited to everything she’s invited to, you’ll find that out pretty quickly and you can deal with it then.

  8. Anon Accountant*

    Maybe after she did this she realized it wasn’t acceptable and is embarrassed and it was a one-time thing.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      Yeah, if she has any degree of self-awareness, she surely figured out that it wasn’t something everyone else was doing.

  9. msbadbar*

    I accidentally crashed an employee lunch once as a contractor, and after I figured it out, I was mortified. I had just started at a huge company, and I’d never been a contractor before. An intern asked me if I was going to “the lunch,” and I told her I hadn’t heard about it. She said that everyone was going out to lunch and I should come along. I did. It was an employee-only, end-of-year holiday lunch. The company had rented out a room in a nice restaurant, paid for a nice catered lunch, and provided employees with gifts. I was so embarrassed, especially after they didn’t have a gift for me, and I’m sure others were, too. However, everyone was so nice and pretended like I belonged there. No one said a word. I didn’t make that mistake again. Ugh, I’m such a dork.

    Like Alison said, she might have figured it out already and you won’t have to worry about it again. If so, she might silently thank you for not bringing it up.

    1. Mabel*

      I don’t think you’re a dork. You were new, and the intern didn’t know any better. I can imagine how embarrassing it was, but I’m glad that the people in attendance were nice about it and tried to make you feel welcome.

      I’m an on-site contractor, and while there are lots of events and benefits at the client company that everyone can participate in, there are some things that are for client company employees only. Almost always there’s a designation on the email, flyer, or whatever about the restriction. Unfortunately, there are times when it’s not quite clear, and I find out later that I missed out on something I could have participated in because it just wasn’t clear. Oh well… (I would ask my manager, but her office is in another state, so she wouldn’t know whether a local event was for everyone or just employees.)

      1. msbadbar*

        Thanks. :) I thought it was just an informal lunch gathering–I hadn’t seen any fliers or emails about it, and I didn’t hear about it until the herd started shuffling out the door. I’m no longer working there, but if I work as a contractor again, I’ll just know to be extra careful about this kind of thing.

    2. Paige Turner*

      That the contractor nightmare, for sure! I’d say that they should have invited you anyway, or at least explained the situation in advance so you wouldn’t end up in that spot.

        1. Ad Astra*

          Ah, I hadn’t thought of that! I’ve never worked in a place where contractors were regularly working at the office, so it sounded a little rude to me that they invited the intern but not the contractor.

        2. Anna*

          Is it a misguided attempt to comply? Or is it something the DOL would actually look at in an investigation?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You know, I’m not sure. One of the tricky things about the contractor regulations is that the test isn’t black and white — it’s a bunch of factors that the IRS considers and most aren’t 100% conclusive on their own. So it leaves companies trying a bunch of things, some not needed, in the hopes that they’ll meet the test.

            For instance, I have a client who insists that every six months I provide them with some invoices I’ve sent to other clients, to prove that I do indeed have other clients. I send them over with all numbers blacked out; they could easily be fake (they’re not, but they could be). There’s nothing about that that proves I’m really a contractor and not an employee. But companies feel they have to cover their asses.

        3. msbadbar*

          Yes, totally. I was really, really clueless about being a contractor when I started there. I went from being a permanent employee at a small non-profit to a giant company that hires tens of thousands of vendors and contractors. They were sued decades ago for misclassifying employees, and so they are extra vigilant now. I worked closely with the team and it was a bummer to be left out sometimes, but I understood.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        For us, contractors aren’t allowed to be paid for going to morale events like a picnic or lunch. So they can go to the picnic, but they have to take leave for it. So they don’t usually go.

      2. The IT Manager*

        The party is paid for by the company for their employees specifically / funded to invite X number of people (and in this case buy X number of presents).

        Also the bosses can give their employees time off or consider their attendance part of work, but they cannot do the same for the contractors. To be fair some places don’t make the distinction and some do and some vary it by event, but the contractor is not an employee and is subject to different rules.

        1. michelenyc*

          I can say all of the places I have contracted with treated me like a regular employee. I was invited to all the parties, team building events, and company sponsored happy hours. I think it depends on your manager but my manager never made me take leave.

          1. EmmAreEmm*

            I wonder how much it has to do with the size and type of place? I’ve worked as a contractor in smaller companies and always been treated as a regular employee and same when I was working for an academic organization (invited to all the events and parties, given a christmas gift etc) but the one larger company I contracted with was pretty strict about the separation.

    3. Lamington*

      We had a similar issue happen to us in a funeral. Other guests (not related to the family or have organized the lunch after) started inviting random people or acquaitances of them to the lunch. The other people showed up and they were not on the list and to make it more embarrasing, the aunts throwing the lunch point blank asked them “who the hell are you” when they attempted to get seated.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Oh, that’s awkward–but a pretty funny story to tell later!
        (great username by the way)

        1. Lamington*

          Thanks!!! Love lamingtons! Now we can laugh at those funeral crashers, but at the time we were upset.

      2. SL #2*

        …wait, the funeral guests started inviting other people (people who didn’t know the deceased, I’m assuming) to the post-funeral lunch? I would definitely have the same reaction the aunts did. “Who the hell are you, why are you here at a memorial lunch for Cousin X?” Even if the uninvited guests weren’t too embarrassed to get the hell out, the invited guests should have been too embarrassed to do anything besides stammer an apology.

        1. Lamington*

          Yes, they invited other people and just told them, it’s no big deal, I’m sure they won’t mind having extra people. So these funeral crashers went under the promise of a free lunch. Thankfully after the aunts told them that, they left.

        2. EmmAreEmm*

          It might be a cultural disconnect? When my filipina grandmother on my mom’s side died everyone was invited to the house after for food and drinks and extra people were more than welcome. When my paternal grandfather died the lunch after was very only if you were invited.

  10. BananaPants*

    We had a situation where a colleague invited his girlfriend/wife to come to our group picnics. We hold them at a public park, but all of the food is purchased with company money and it’s for members of our large group (~30 employees) only. He persisted in bringing her even after his manager pointed out to him that no one else brought a spouse or SO because they’re not invited. The year after his boss spoke to him, he invited her to come after the cookout when various sports/games were happening so that she wasn’t eating company-provided food.

    She must have taken the afternoon off of work specifically for the picnic. The two of them would sit together and chat and watch the activities. It was WEIRD. Since the picnics are held in a public park there wasn’t much that could be done; he dug his heels in and claimed that she just happened to be taking the afternoon off and meeting him at the park. This only stopped when they had a baby – except that she was on maternity leave and brought the baby with her that year.

    He left the company not long ago for a place that he considers more “family friendly”.

    1. Case of the Mondays*

      I have a friend that works in an area that have a lot of conservative religious employees. There is a culture of inviting spouses to work recreational and social events. He is a transplant and was pretty thrown off by it. He thought it was because many of the spouses are stay at home wifes. But, it actually has more to do with their religious beliefs about socializing with the opposite sex without your spouse present. Many of the employees were refusing to go to the events or not really participating/having fun. After talking to a few privately the boss learned that in their religion it is frowned upon to socialize without your spouse. I guess it’s a lot harder to cheat if you never socialize without your spouse. Interestingly, some of the employees didn’t even really believe in this religious tenant but had grown up with so many people following it that it felt scandalous to break it even if it wasn’t theirs. I guess playing lawn games with a coworker of the opposite sex was akin to going to a strip club for some of them. Spouses were invited going forward and everyone had fun.

      My friend thought the inclusion of spouses was going to lead to male employees not talking to female employees, etc. once he knew the back story. It actually didn’t. They were more comfortable talking to the female employees with their wife their witnessing it. It was a totally different dynamic than one I have ever encountered.

      I doubt that is what is up with OP but it could explain the guy that wouldn’t go to any picnic without his wife.

      I also knew someone that wouldn’t do overnight travel without bringing his wife along for similar religious based reasons.

      1. Ad Astra*

        That is really fascinating, especially the part about people picking up those social norms even though they don’t share that faith.

        1. Lou*

          Social norms in Western countries is that everyone participates in religious holidays even though they arent religious and people do it regardless even if they dont believe anymore. Habits are hard to break.

      2. BananaPants*

        My guess is that singles of either sex or those in same-sex relationships would unfortunately not feel very welcome in such an environment, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

        I’d personally have a rough time in an environment where my husband was expected to attend work events – he works different hours from me (nights and every other weekend) so assuming I was able to get a babysitter I wouldn’t have much fun getting the stinkeye from my male coworkers’ suspicious wives during an event or having none of my male colleagues “allowed” to speak or socialize with me. I doubt I’d attend many work social events if that expectation existed.

        1. MashaKasha*

          I’d think of it as a perfect excuse to skip work events… It is probably worth noting that I’d have a rough time with this expectation as well; and would’ve had a rough time with it still even when I was married.

    2. the_scientist*

      And yet, my company picnic is spouses + kids welcome, so it goes to show you that what is the norm in some businesses isn’t the norm everywhere. I would personally consider it rather strange to host a company picnic and *not* invite guests, although it is unequivocally weird that the guy kept bringing his wife even after he was told not to.

      1. Anna*

        Former company was families included for summer picnic and holiday party. Current workplace is staff only.

      2. Judy*

        I’ve been to “group picnics” that were only the employees from a specific group, or a set of groups, they’ve usually been “leave work at 11, go to picnic, have games after lunch, able to leave at 3pm or so to go home”. I’ve also been to “company picnics” that were on Saturdays and were meant for families to come.

        I’m not sure I’ve been to an event during the workday that families were expected or even invited to come.

      3. BananaPants*

        It’s a group picnic held on a Friday, specifically as the “Teapot Design Group Annual Picnic” – we meet up at 11 AM or noon for the cookout, followed by a few hours of casual sports and games, and everyone gets to go home by 3 PM. The company gives senior managers a certain dollar amount annually for a group lunch or picnic, and this is ours.

        We don’t have ANY events where family members are invited.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Exjob had potlucks during working hours for employees only–you had to sign up to bring food. The Christmas party allowed ONE adult guest (whom you also had to list beforehand). Then they had a pizza party thing for families at a local place with games, etc. I never attended those because the venue is very kid-oriented.

    3. Bwmn*

      This story kind of brings to mind something I was thinking might be the case should the OP’s admin continue bringing her husband. In a previous job, I had to attend a number of embassy parties on behalf of my organization. Often invitations were “plus one” and it would have been considered appropriate to bring an SO or an organization colleague. For the first two parties I attended, I invited a friend to come along with me largely out of nerves of going to such an event alone and not really knowing what to do. The first party was a weird one with no real ties to the organization, so having a friend along for fun made sense – but the second one, I realized both that it was a bit strange and I didn’t quite need the “security blanket” friend in case I was alone for 5-10 minutes here or there.

      So in the case of repeatedly bringing an SO when none is invited and it doesn’t quite make sense – it may be that security blanket situation where the employee finds the situation really stressful or they feel alienated from the other employees. In the OP’s case, if the husband is again invited to such a lunch and a comment has to be made – it also may be worthwhile to reach out to the staff member to eat with you or encourage introductions to other colleagues.

      That being said,whatever the follow up – I would not make this strictly about money. I’ve been to very few company events where the food purchased was so rigid to exact attendance that an extra person or 10 would have impacted the cost. And I think the cost being the primary driver of the issue is where the point about being family unfriendly fits in. The problem if it continues is that it doesn’t fit with the company’s professional norms for those events.

  11. Jake*

    The part in parentheses is exactly why I wouldn’t say something. If she has any self awareness at all, she’s already recognized this.

  12. Katie the Fed*

    Hmm, I see this differently. This is one of those “spinach in your teeth” type things where I think it would be polite and gracious to clue her in so she doesn’t embarrass herself in the future. Maybe before the next event just say “oh, by the way, this event is just employees only’ and leave it at that.

    1. Jwal*

      Yes, I’m for this approach. There’s nothing she can do about the past event, and giving a general FYI before the next one would stop any awkwardness about not understanding in future.

    2. some1*

      This is what I think. And I don’t see any evidence that the employee figured out that this is something that’s Not Done. Some people are just clueless, especially when they are just starting out in the professional world and they think anything that they weren’t specifically told not to do is okay.

    3. tango*

      I agree. Also, if for some reason I had invited my spouse/sig other/mother/whomever to a business lunch where I realized it was not ok once the lunch began, I would’ve gone to my boss afterwards and said something like “oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was employees only. I’ll double check next time to make sure my xxx only comes to family/friends events”. It’s the proactive thing to do where you acknowledge an error, apologize and say what you plan to do differently in the future. That way the boss knows I realize I made an error and am taking responsibility for it. I realize the employee might be embarrassed so is not bringing it up to her boss but in the scheme of things this is no big deal. If apologizing for this is too embarrassing for her, than what about when something really major might happen and she has to go to her boss about that mistake? It also could be the employee does not realize that she made a mistake. And if she invites her spouse to the next employee only event and the OP then says something to her, the employee will rightly ask why didn’t you say something the last time so I wouldn’t make the mistake again?

      1. Steph*

        Right after it happened, I realized that this would have been my response as well. I would have casually told my boss that I didn’t realize that it was an employee lunch (not sure how she could miss it, everyone ate in our employee lunch room, in the middle of the work day, with all of the literature showing that it was an employee appreciation lunch) but she didn’t say anything, which is what made me think that maybe she really was that clueless and one of the reasons why I contemplated talking to her about it. I have since decided not to say anything and see if she figure it out on her own.

    4. hbc*

      Yes, much preferred. If she does it once, she just didn’t know. If she does it twice, she’ll be pegged as clueless (either for not catching on to the norm, or not caring.) It’s a kindness to not let her make that mistake multiple times.

    5. Ad Astra*

      I think the “just so you know” comment is a good way to make it clear without sounding like you’re reprimanding her. Much better than sitting her down for a chat about what she did wrong, which will make it feel like a BFD when it’s not.

    6. JGray*

      I agree. Perhaps there is a way to make things more clear. My company holds two “company sponsored events” each year- a Christmas party and a picnic. The Christmas party is for employees and spouses only (an exception is made for newborns) and is very formal. The picnic is for employees & families. My company also invites retirees and temp employees. This is all spelled out in the employee handbook. We also occasionally have vendor sponsored lunches held on site and it is made clear it is for employees only. I don’t think that it has to be something as formal as the handbook but perhaps she could just let her know in a general sense that x types of events are employee only while y events are family events, etc.

  13. Joanna*

    This reminds me of a story I heard about Princess Diana. (Maybe its apocryphal; Google isn’t turning up anything for me.) The story was something like this: She was at a formal dinner and at the end of the meal little bowls with warm water were brought out for all the guests to clean their hands. But one of the guests was not familiar with this custom and instead picked up the bowl and drank the water from it. Super embarrassing, right? Well, Diana, the classy woman that she was, picks up her own bowl and drinks the water, too.

    Office norms are just that, norms. Violating them is not a moral failing to be stamped out immediately. It will correct itself on its own, and if it doesn’t, it probably won’t ever become a big enough problem anyway. If it does, cross that bridge when you come to it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      That’s the world’s oldest etiquette story–I think the first time it got told, it was Queen Elizabeth.

      1. Joanna*

        Ha ha, nice! I’ve heard that happen with so many stories. Who is the person coming up with all these great anecdotes?

        1. Katie the Fed*

          I’ll confess. It was me. I’m known throughout the land for my impeccable etiquette. Unfortunately, those same manners prevent me from taking credit for such great feats of etiquette, so I’ve allowed others to be the subject of this story. But now it’s time to me come clean: it was I who drank from the finger bowl.

    2. Artemesia*

      I first read this one about Abraham Lincoln — definitely didn’t happen to Princess Diana. But it makes its point. (probably didn’t happen to Abraham LIncoln either)

      1. Nervous Accountant*

        As Abraham Lincoln said: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” :-)

  14. TootsNYC*

    I’d say something after the 2nd time; I wouldn’t want someone to get to the third time.

    Well, I suppose maybe I’d go with an “in the moment” feedback of expressing surprise: “You brought your husband to this? Oh. Hmmm.” and then on the third time, say, “I didn’t want to make a big deal of this early on, because I thought it might be a fleeting thing, or you’d pick up on the norms, but…we don’t encourage people to invite their spouses to every little gathering like this. One spouse doesn’t affect the numbers much, but if a lot of people did, that would create a problem—plus, I don’t like having uneven standards among employees.
    “But mostly, this a time when your focus should be on the workgroup and your colleagues–not your spouse. The food may be free, but your time isn’t free, actually. There’s a work purpose to these gatherings, and when your spouse comes, that dilutes your participation. Please don’t do it again.”

    Of course, that brings up the “can you consider this ‘work’ time, officially?” question.

    1. Anna*

      I usually adhere to once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. However, in this specific case two times would be enough. However, the OP hasn’t got there yet. Thankfully. And hopefully it will be clear the employee shouldn’t do it.

    2. CMT*

      I’d feel uncomfortable chastising somebody for not picking up norms when they hadn’t received explicit instructions (most people can’t read minds). But yes, if it happened again, I think you could say something. Just maybe a little more gently than your script, which reads a little harsh to me.

    3. Nerdling*

      I would absolutely not use something as passive and vague as “You brought your husband to this? Oh. Hmmm.” You’re a manager, so if you have a problem with something your employee is doing, you just explain to them what the problem is. In this case, “I know you didn’t realize this, but these lunches/events are for employees only. They’re hosted by (whomever) for (whatever reason).” That lets the employee realize they’ve goofed without requiring them to jump through mental hoops trying to figure out what you meant by “Hmmmm.”

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yeah, even though I am not the most direct person in the world, I think something hint-y like “Oh. Hmm” is not a great idea. I think it’s fine to let it go once (since it’s entirely possible that she picked up on the office norm herself) and address it directly if it happens a second time. I think it’s fine to address it directly now, if you’d rather not wait for a second occurrence. (And in that case, I’d address it briefly and cheerfully in a straightforward fashion, as a not-a-big-deal thing, like, “Hey, just so you know, X events aren’t for outside family or friends–just for employees.” It doesn’t have to be a Huge Thing.)

        But “You brought your husband? Oh, hmm” feels like the worst of both worlds to me. If the person is sensitive to social norms, it’s going to make them worry and second-guess themselves without giving clear direction. If the person isn’t, it’ll fly over their heads.

    4. mander*

      This somehow strikes me as a bit too, erm, something. Harsh? Elaborate? Maybe borderline snarky? I’m not sure, exactly.

      In any case I’d probably pull her aside briefly, say something like “I’m sure you realized this, but since you’re new I just wanted to make sure you know that the cookout sponsored by Teapots Inc. was meant for employees only. Friends and family are of course welcome to come to our other official events.” I think putting in a big elaborate explanation about costs, standards, work time, etc. makes it sound like much more of a big deal than it seems to have been.

  15. LawBee*

    This seems like such a non-issue to me. I wouldn’t even bring it up, and would at most do a quick line in the email announcement for the next employee-only whatever. One extra person at a grill that was planned for 400 is no big deal, and I’m sure the employee has figured it out by now.

    1. Joanna*

      This sounds like a good idea. I wasn’t privy to the email announcements for my spouse’s company’s events (an accounting firm), but I’ve been to pretty much all of them there have ALWAYS been other spouses there. I’m really not sure this is a common office norm so much as “a norm of THIS office,” in which case it couldn’t hurt to spell it out on the invite.

      In fact, if it wasn’t spelled out on the invite, and having an employee bring her spouse was a big problem, I would be much more upset at whoever made the invite than I would be at the employee who brought her husband.

    2. hbc*

      If she’s figured it out, it would be much more embarrassing to be the reason the group email has an extra line rather than to just have an off-hand comment made before the next meeting. You never want to be the reason for a change in documentation.

    3. The IT Manager*

      I’m going to disagree. This is one new person missing the norms. This is specifically not a universal/common problem in the company.

    4. Steph*

      It really is a non-issue in itself, I wondered about saying something to her because to the rest of the office (including other new people in our department) the information and the literature sent out about it made it very clear that it was employee only, I’m not sure how she didn’t pick up on that. I contemplated saying something to her because she really seemed oblivious before, during and after the lunch that it might be wrong (even when she was the only one there with a spouse). I was a little worried that if I waited for a pattern, she would be more embarrassed that I didn’t say something after the first time. In the end I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and haven’t said anything, hopeful that she picked up on the fact that it was outside the office norm and that it won’t happen again.

  16. Brett*

    “I assume that she’s younger and newer to the workforce and maybe just doesn’t know general office norms.”

    This is the part I was caught on from the letter. Every office I have worked in (which has included private sector, startup, state and local government, and academia), the norm has been that spouses and family were invited unless specifically not invited (and this pretty much only pertained to working lunches).

    For local government especially (where everyone has to pay for their own food out of pocket anyway), the office norm I have experienced has been that your spouse is expected to attend unless their schedule prevents them from attending. I made the mistake of not bringing my spouse to my first business formal breakfast in local government. My boss, his boss and his boss’ boss each took me aside at the breakfast and said that they could pay for my spouse’s ticket if the cost was an issue. Tickets were less than $5, so there was a clear message behind the offer.

    1. Samantha*

      That’s interesting. That has not been my experience at all. At every place I’ve worked, it’s assumed that any kind of meal or event – during the workday especially – is employees only unless spouses/families are explicitly invited.

      1. Joanna*

        During the workday, I could definitely understand, but my experience has been that my spouse’s work events in the evenings have always had several spouses in attendance. I would say it differs from office to office.

      2. Brett*

        Maybe it is regional?
        I have worked almost exclusively in the Midwest. One aspect of this that I do think is regional is that workplace events and meals here are always held on weekends or in the evenings, not during work hours, so the workday conflict does not really happen.

    2. fposte*

      Wow, and neither local government nor academia are that way here. Dinners can still be more ambiguous, since they’re out of work hours, but a noonday cookout wouldn’t be a command performance. (Though we also wouldn’t necessarily notice or care about a spouse being at one, either.)

      1. Brett*

        I only really ran into the command performance level of expectation with the formal breakfast.
        Think stratified assigned tables with an informal (not casual) to daytime semi-formal dress code and Congressional officials often in attendance.
        But I do feel like it builds up over time if your family misses too many other events. We frequently emphasize how your entire family, not just you, is committed to the organization.

    3. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      With my current job I was very surprised when I was given a plus one to our holiday party.

      At my previous job, we had lunches, dinners, holiday parties and spouses were never included (unless they both happened to work for the company).

    4. Artemesia*

      I am surprised — I find this sort of weird. Don’t these spouses have jobs? And are the ones that don’t supposed to find a baby sitter for a work breakfast?

      1. Brett*

        A lot of spouses take time off work and get babysitters to attend these events. (It is actually pretty common for a married couple to both be employed in our agency, though in different divisions.) With rare exceptions kids are allowed at our events too, even the formal breakfast I mentioned.

  17. Miss M*

    Probably it’s best to send out a pre-lunch email explaining that it’s an employee only lunch? It might sound lame or uptight, but it’s telling employees that spouses/S.O.s are excluded.

  18. Just a thought*

    Is it possible that in a company of 400, the letter writer hadn’t realized her employees husband works elsewhere in the company? That no one noticed because he works there too?

    1. Oryx*

      That’s actually an interesting point. I’ve worked lots of places where there were couples or family member and they all did an excellent job of keeping it on the down-low. If not for being told point blank Sue and Joe are married or Lisa is Eric’s daughter, I would have had NO idea.

  19. NinaK*

    I think the OP should say something very nicely to the employee who she assumes is younger/newer to the workforce. The OP points out the woman might not be aware of corporate norms so it would help her to know the sometimes ‘unspoken rules’. Not just for this job or another BBQ, for life.

    When I was about 23 I had my first job as an admin to a VP. She asked me to plan a casual dinner event for staff and volunteers (who were flying in from around the country.) It was a total of 60 people at a very casual evening event that was only fun and not work. I had a lot of autonomy and aside from clearing the budget and the venue she wanted me just to handle the whole thing. In the few days leading up to the event several people cancelled and, as we had already confirmed the numbers, we were going to pay for meals that would not be eaten. I was a little annoyed by my (also 23 y/o) coworkers who caxed last minute. Two days before the event a coworker got engaged and said to me in passing, “Can I bring Joe tomorrow night? it will be his only chance to meet the volunteers I work with” (because they live across country and they have a very strong relationship all around.) I said ‘sure’ without thinking it through, because we were going to pay for the food anyway.

    So, the night of the fun event in which everyone had a fun time and the whole thing was just really fun, my boss’s boss (who I had met only once or twice) sidled up to me, pointed to “Joe” and said “who is THAT man?” I said “It is Jane’s fiance.” and she HISSED at me “He SHOULD NOT be here!” Seriously, hissed like a snake! I apologized and desperately tried not to break down and cry.

    In hindsight, I totally get it! A corporate event, no matter how casual, means guests for everyone or no one. And, while I can still envision that snake baring her fangs and hissing at me and it is still cringe worthy, she did me a favor. We don’t know what we don’t know, right? It’s like ‘business casual’ and ‘corporate optional’ (i.e. mandatory!) how else do people know if we don’t share it (nicely!)

    Sorry to be long winded. If you say something kindly it will help her!

  20. NoGood*

    The OP says “400 people in our building” which sounds like this is a pretty large company- I work for a large company, and there are always tons of random events like this – from vendor appreciation lunches, to catering company events that hand out samples, ice cream truck/ espresso cart from someone ect. most of the time it is really not clear who all is invited or not, and a lot of the time, there is not even an advance email – you get something that morning/ shortly before it begins about it, or just happen to stumble upon it.

    At my company, nobody would really notice or care if a spouse showed up, unless it was all the time, or they were really disruptive – or are the guy we work with who I am pretty sure calls his wife and 6 kids to come get free whatever every single time. If this is a similar situation, I would just let it go, this is hardly an intimate lunch at a small company, and you don’t know if the spouse was specifically invited for the event, or if they just had lunch plans and decided to eat at the event instead. I also doubt he was the only non employee there, just the only one you know about.

    I would let this one go – if you get an opportunity to say something like ” wish we had more events significant others were invited to” or something, then take it, but I would not single her out, especially when you don’t have the full details.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      I get the feeling that the only reason the OP cared was because the company wasn’t paying for it, but I agree that they should let this one go–but definitely say something if it happens again. If it were me, I’d have been mortified when I realized nobody else’s spouse had come, and it would never happen again.

    2. Steph*

      A big factor into caring about this was the fact that it was a vendor, not a company sponsored lunch. Honestly in itself this didn’t really matter, I was just a little worried as she didn’t seem to show any sense of recognition that this might not have been the right choice before, during or after the lunch and I didn’t want her to be even more embarrassed if she did it again and I corrected her (possibly at an even more inappropriate event) and she wonders why I didn’t already speak up. In the end I decided not to say anything, and I’m hoping that she picked up on her mistake on her own.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        Well, it also sounds like other people did notice, as you mention above that people commented.

        When people bring something to your attention about your department, you do have to care about it and deal with it (even if dealing with it is deciding not to say something).

      2. CADMonkey007*

        It’s hard to say what actually transpired here, but I’m of the opinion that “free food” just makes some people go crazy and forget common decency. That’s why there will always be office vultures, that guy who brings in his family of 6 to raid the break room, that lady who hordes all the leftovers, and the one who brings their spouse to employee only events.

  21. The Bimmer Guy*

    I have to say, I’m one of those people who likes being told the first time I do something that seriously bothers somoene, because if it happens even twice, I’m going to be embarrassed. That said, if I were in the employee’s position, I probably would have figured out that the event wasn’t meant for employees when no one else’s spouse showed up.

  22. BookCocoon*

    I appreciate your advice to let this go. Our director seems to expend most of his energy on things like this — fixating on small things that employees did wrong ONCE and making them into a big deal, like the department will go to hell if he doesn’t personally address every individual faux pas. It’s very uncomfortable and makes everyone feel like they have to watch their backs at all times.

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