should I have to go to happy hours to get a promotion?

A reader writes:

I work for a nonprofit organization. My department is a very close-knit one, with lots of talk about being “a family” and always being willing to help people out on projects even if it isn’t in our job description. I work in a very small offshoot of the larger department and my work is not incredibly close to the bigger piece.

I make a point of being firm about work/life boundaries. I am politely resolute about my lunch breaks and out-of-office time and do actually tell people “no” when I am too busy with my own work to help out on projects or participate in department “fun” activities. I have also been outspoken in group meetings when managers attempt to push boundaries because of the aforementioned “family” vibe (like trying to make anonymous feedback non-anonymous because “we’re all family and we can be honest with each other”). I do great work though, and my supervisors are always very complimentary.

Recently, however, a friend in my department was told she would not receive a promotion because she is not a “team player.” When pressed, HR and her supervisor mentioned her absence from department-bonding activities.

I am currently far exceeding my “assistant” job description and am also seeking a title/compensation change to reflect the project manager role I’m now performing. Despite recommendations from previous and current managers that I be promoted, my organization is dragging their feet. I am beginning to worry that if I asked about why, they would tell me that I am also not a “team player.”

The extent of this role means I am often too busy to participate in fun department activities. I also, frankly, don’t want to participate. The shift to working from home full-time has been extremely rough on my mental health. I am in a better place now than I was before, but I still am not motivated to spend the limited spare time I have playing games with colleagues. I do make chitchat through email and instant message.

Is it normal that forgoing a Zoom scavenger hunt would damage my chances at promotion this heavily? Do I just need to suck it up and pretend to want a deeper-than-cordial relationship with my colleagues?

There are workplaces where even if you do excellent work, you’ll be seen as insufficiently invested if you don’t show up at enough office social events.

This is ridiculous, since your excellent work provides plenty of evidence that you’re invested … and frankly, it’s hard to see why your internal level of investment is even relevant if you’re consistently churning out high-level work. Plus, if any of these social activities are outside of work hours, people who have child-care responsibilities or other obligations in their non-work hours will be at an immediate disadvantage.

To answer your question of whether it’s normal: It’s not “normal” in the sense of healthy or reasonable, but it’s also not as uncommon as it should be.

And relatedly, that “we’re like family here” thing that your office likes to do? Also not healthy or reasonable. In fact, it’s hugely problematic. You tend to see that bandied about in offices where boundaries are routinely violated and you’re expected to work long hours, accept lower pay, not complain about bad management, and generally prioritize loyalty to your employer over your own interests — even if your employer doesn’t reciprocate that loyalty in any meaningful way. And of course, work isn’t a family. It can be a place where you have warm, supportive relationships with colleagues and genuinely care about each other, but it’s also a place that might fire you or lay you off and where you are trading your labor for a paycheck and need to look out for your own interests, just as your employer will look out for theirs.

Offices that like to say they’re like a family are some of the ones most likely to penalize you if you don’t take part in workplace social events. They tend to have a built-in distrust of people who don’t buy into the “family” model, and in those cases “not a team player” often really just means “has boundaries around their non-work time and advocates for their own needs.”

That said, it seems like you’re assuming this will definitely be an issue for you in this job, but it doesn’t sound like that’s been made clear yet. The fact that your friend’s absence from team-bonding activities was mentioned in a conversation about her not being promoted is alarming! But it’s possible that there was more to it than that — like maybe her manager was suggesting a wide range of things she could do to counter a particular impression, and attending more team events was one suggestion of many. It’s understandably unsettling, though, and you’re right to be thinking about it.

The easiest way to find out is to ask your boss directly. There’s no reason you can’t say, “I’m finding that my work keeps me really busy and it’s hard for me to participate in department activities like X and Y. Is that likely to harm the way I’m perceived here or be an obstacle to my ability to move up here over time?” If that feels more direct than your relationship with your boss allows, a different approach is to simply ask what you would need to do to be a strong candidate for a promotion and see what your boss’s answer focuses on.

You should also pay attention to who in your office does get promoted. If they’re all people who heavily lean in to office socializing, that’s useful info. If people who do good work but don’t show up for virtual happy hours and Zoom scavenger hunts don’t ever seem to get rewarded, that’s even more useful to know.

If it does turn out that yes, you’re going to be held back professionally because you don’t socialize enough, that doesn’t mean that you need to change what you’re doing. Faking more enthusiasm is certainly one option (and some people decide to do that, calculating that the trade-off is worth it to them), but you also have the option of concluding that this culture doesn’t work well for you and you’d rather look at jobs that don’t come with this expectation attached.

Before you do that, it’s worth noting that a lot of office jobs do have some component of expected bonding time! But you should be able to find workplaces where it’s mostly confined to things like “spend an hour at a happy hour once or twice a year” and “show up at the annual holiday party,” as opposed to a more time-intensive, ongoing obligation.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here

{ 132 comments… read them below }

  1. Nanani*

    Historically, this has been a big area of pushback because it ends up discriminatory – sometimes explicitly, like happy hour at a venue where some demographics are unwelcome or unsafe (which admittedly doesn’t apply to zoom), but more often by impact.
    The most obvious example is people with care responsibilities -disproportionately women- CAN’T attend all those unpaid hours of mandatory fun and don’t get promoted. This part is just as true when it’s over zoom.

    So yeah it’s definitely worth pushing back on this. If they want games -during paid work time- as a team bonding thing, fine. Some people will hate it but, fine. Putting it after hours as extra that materially affects your career? NOoooooooOOOooo

    1. spoops*

      (Hi I’m the question asker!) The activities have mostly been during work hours which is fine, but via Zoom also means it’s a lot harder to drop in/duck out which is what I would normally do in the actual office.

      1. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

        This may or may not be a thing at your office, but can you turn your camera off after official notice that you’re present? I often turn my camera off during Zoom meetings after a point so that I can get up, go to the bathroom, get a cup of tea, etc. Even if you can’t turn your camera off, I’d take a couple of “bathroom breaks” every so often to take a breather.

        1. spoops*

          You definitely can! And I mostly do for that reason. Most of the time I turn my camera off and go back to what I was originally doing while everyone makes idle chit chat. Recently we had an hour-long department meeting that was initially cancelled (yay!) and then suddenly uncancelled, with the reason “I cancelled this initially because there’s nothing on the agenda for today, but I know how much we all love spending time together so I put it back!”

          1. Victoria, Please*

            Oh my word. I love my team dearly, but would never, ever, ever do this to us! This is way different than Zoom happy hour.

            Also, from the donor perspective or the funder perspective, can all y’all lovely folks please go do some work?

          2. BRR*

            I’m asking this based solely off my own experience at a “we’re like a family” employer, do you think promotions are based off of work quality at all? At my previous employer, there was no connection between promotions and people’s job performance/duties. There’s nothing that really indicates that in your letter, it’s ptsd on my part, but i would see if there are any trends and decide your next steps based on that.

            1. spoops*

              Funnily enough, a recent anonymous poll of our department scored very low in “trust in management” because of the seemingly random way they dole out promotions.

              1. Berkeleyfarm*

                Well, I see why they want to make the feedback non-anonymous. Someone got their fee-fees hurt.

            2. RubyJackson*

              “We’re like family” statements make me wonder if they mean “Waltons” or “Manson.”

              1. Heffalump*

                “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

                First person to name the novel this comes from gets the Heffalump Gold Star.

                1. Fiddle_Faddle*

                  Tolstoy – “Anna Karenina” I think…

                  Although I’ve noticed that unhappy families tend to have similar patterns of dysfunction, so I don’t really agree with the observation. It’s one of those things that sounds profound but doesn’t entirely hold up if you think about it.

                2. knitcrazybooknut*

                  Anna Karenina by Tolstoy!

                  Thank you for the opportunity for a gold star girl to get a gold star.

                3. Barbara Eyiuche*

                  Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
                  A second gold star if you know where the opposite quote comes from:
                  All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.

          3. pleaset cheap rolls*

            “I know how much we all love spending time together so I put it back!”

            “I’m going to use the time in other ways so won’t be able to make it – thanks.”

      2. Nanani*

        That sucks but in this case I think you really do have to just endure it.
        Not much I can add that isn’t repeating Alison’s advice even more than my first comment.
        Maybe try to reframe it is part of WORK and not spare time/optional thing you could have avoided?

        As a fellow introvert, I am so sorry :/
        This job does seem to value Bonding Activity TM as a part of their culture, so it’s a bad fit for you in that respect. Would promotion mean being expected to lead these things? Would you want that?

        1. spoops*

          I would absolutely not be expected to lead these! I do try and show up to a few so I can “put my hours in.” It’s just frustrating not to know if that’s enough. I think Alison’s advice about explicitly asking is my next step!

      3. Lacey*

        I think if you’re proactive about letting people know you’re super busy so you can only come for a little bit, it will still help you to have that face time.

        My work doesn’t do a lot of this nonsense, but we do some to help keep people connected. Most of it isn’t valuable to me, but I show up and smile like it is.

        Most of the time I stay for the whole thing, but the one time I was very busy, I showed up for a while and then said, “Well, I have to get going!” and left.

        1. spoops*

          That’s been my technique thus far! It’s so much harder to duck out of Zoom things – I was so good at leaving happy hours early when they were in person haha.

          1. Smitt*

            Hey spoops, I always find the easiest way to duck out of virtual meetings or social events is sort of the equivalent of an Irish Goodbye. I will just comment in the chat that I need to hop off for whatever reason and then just disconnect. Usually including a note that it was a pleasure chatting with everyone and looking forward to the next one. The benefit of this is that you don’t need to wait for a break in the conversation and you don’t “look bad” for leaving without saying anything. It works well for me and hopefully could work for you.

            1. J.B.*

              Bonus, once someone does this often others follow. At least for me by then it’s yay done this long enough!

              1. Mongrel*

                And that’s when you find out that “Everyone loves this…” consists of three people who all sit next to each other.

      4. HMM*

        Since they’re during work hours, would it be helpful to just think of it just as one of the less desirable part of your jobs? Maybe beg off due to being busy every third time or something for a reprieve. I’m not inclined to attend many of these things myself, but if they’re paying me to do team trivia instead of work on my project then… *shrug*

        My trick for ducking out of a Zoom is stating up front that I have to leave for X at the beginning of the call and then just popping in the chat when I have to duck out to say “this was fun, wish I could stay longer! see ya at the next one!” then immediately leave the Zoom. Everyone in my culture seems to do that and it isn’t looked at as if you’re not a team player but YMMV!

        1. mediamaven*

          I agree. I hate the “family” vibe but being a component of driving culture and camaraderie is part of many jobs – especially if it’s more of a manager role. If it’s during work hours this makes it much less onerous. I promise you – you are not the only one who is busy in your company and it can go a long way in terms of building relationships.

        2. spoops*

          The 1/3 of the time thing is mostly what I have been doing! I guess I will continue and hope it is enough :)

          1. HMM*

            Totally! Plus if you pair it with 1-1 outreach on your terms, then it’s really hard to argue that you’re not a team player!

      5. DrSalty*

        If it’s during work hours, can’t you just show your face for half an hour, drop a “this was so fun, but I gotta go do xyz work thing” in the chat, and then drop off? It’s the perfect excuse.

      6. Canadian Yankee*

        Unfortunately, you may find this expectation gets harder to avoid if you are promoted – more senior people are often expected to demonstrate the “corporate culture” by example. Also, in some companies, the job of Project Manager implicitly includes the job of Project Cheerleader. Make sure you know the unwritten requirements for this job as well as the written ones.

      7. Artemesia*

        The question is not ‘should it’ but ‘will it’ and the answer to that is probably especially since your peer has already been explicitly told that. It means that if you want a promotion you need to think strategically about how to maximize visibility while minimizing actual participation.

      8. ele4phant*

        Hmm…I’d say I think it’s *easier* to duck out when it’s zoom than when it’s in-person.

        You hope on, make sure you say a few things and get your face on the screen, then, at a certain point you just say – hey this was fun but I’ve got to go let the dog out/help my kid with homework/get dinner in the oven/just plainly say, I’ve gotta hop-off now see you on the next one.

        If it’s a big enough group, you don’t even necessarily have to announce anything, just put in the chat that you’re taking off and leave.

        Leaving something in person I think takes a little more skill and more attention getting.

      9. AnonForThis*

        During work hours changes the request. During work hours, they are paying me to participate, basically. There are
        * some that the leadership requires attendance at (If my grandboss attends, I attend – your cultural rule may vary);
        * some that it is strongly encouraged – I’m in software, so team building is required and I come across as completely out of step if I miss all of them – I can jump off but not miss unless there is a more important meeting I’m covering;
        * Optional but show my face/ be polite- like a happy hour to say farewell to a retiring co-worker – I attend for at least 30 minutes after work. Honoring others contributions and treating them as people to be polite but brief.
        * some that are completely optional and I don’t ever have time to attend (“learn about how to de-stress”).

        But I would strongly caution you that it can come across as cold, arrogant, “too good for my peers” and “not a team player” if you don’t join work activities at all, and never participate and contribute. Shy, introvert – that’s okay… join for a bit. ”

        You have a personal brand… check and see if you are aligned with the overall culture. It’s not a light switch – it is a continuum for “we are family” (I don’t deceive myself that “we are a true family” where I work – they will replace me as fast as they can – but when I “needed” coverage for an emergency, my group actually contributed PTO to allow me to be paid during that time.)

    2. JohannaCabal*

      Also, some individuals do not drink for religious reasons and often will refrain from even being in situations where the primary focus is alcohol even if they are not drinking, such as drinking soda at a bar. A friend’s old manager was perplexed why a Muslim employee wouldn’t join them at a bar for happy hour because in the manager’s mind the employee could just drink something non-alcoholic (I also recognize people interpret religious tenets differently so someone else from a religion may be more comfortable with happy hours).

      1. Nanani*

        Yeeep and people can have medical reasons to avoid alcohol that they don’t want to disclose.

    3. Cheryl Blossom*

      One of the issues at my old job was that I was literally getting pushed out in favor of the (straight) guy (I’m a queer woman) who liked to play golf with the boss…

  2. Tracy*

    Even without the “family” atmosphere or the forced socializing, there are a lot of places where it’s just very difficult to get even small promotions. I have receive what I would consider a half-promotion in the 15 years that I’ve had my job and it was genuine business need (so my boss at the time could not avoid it any longer). It’s due time for me to ask for a promotion again (yes I’ve asked before and was denied) due to changing management job duties.

    May need to research promotion requests here …

  3. Hiring Mgr*

    it sounds like your friend was told explicitly this was the main reason for not getting promoted… So i’d say if you value a promotion at this company you might have to participate in some of these activities.

    Though is that really so bad? If popping on a Zoom for a few minutes maybe every other week is all that it is (and during work time) try it out for a couple of weeks and see how it goes.

    1. Threeve*

      I would be especially careful about turning down actual work (if that’s what you mean by “helping out on projects.”)

      “We’re all going to get together in the conference room to stuff envelopes this afternoon!” feels social, but it’s the sort of thing you want to do your best to participate in. Skipping out on stuff like that gives a very different impression than turning down scavenger hunts and happy hours.

      1. spoops*

        Projects I normally try to help out with if I can! I am always willing to help move boxes or stuff envelopes when in the office. It just looks like WAY less than all the Family Mindset people are contributing.

        1. Threeve*

          It actually sounds like you’re participating quite a bit! I would just lean on the “buts” as much as possible when you turn things down.

          “I have a call at 2, but I’d love to join for the first 30 minutes or so.” or “I don’t really have the expertise for that, but I’m happy to be a third pair of eyes just for formatting and copy editing before you submit.”

    2. spoops*

      I do attend some of the activities (I helped my team place silver in the “Zoom Olympics” we did last week) and some of them are fun! It’s mostly I didn’t know that was an aspect we were being judged on for promotions, and if my current level of attendance is lacking.

      1. Smithy*

        Without knowing more, what may be challenging is that even in places where engagement and attendance in social spaces does matter – it’s rarely going to be directly flagged or articulated in more on-the-record conversations. While it’s good to have those direct conversations with your boss, I think you’ll have more success if you pair that information you receive from your peers/colleagues in more informal settings.

        Nonprofits can be notoriously difficult in really determining how and when promotions are assessed. Who actually holds the cards in how and when promotions are granted isn’t always super transparent, so I always advocate pushing through formal methods to get insight as well as informal.

        In my experience, promotions are often tied to institutional investment in certain departments that can have an uneven correlation to the amount and quality of anyone’s given work. Or they occur around decisions related to budgets for a new year or changes tied to a strategy launch – essentially, it may have zero to do when an individual has their annual evaluation or when changes to their job actually happen. So someone may get stretched along for 6 months because that’s when the new fiscal year starts or another major change, but the promotion was always going to happen. Or someone else is just on a team pegged for zero growth beyond standard raises, and there is just only so much a supervisor can advocate. Or it’s a more murky mix in between where a team lead thinks there might be opportunities but doesn’t know when, etc etc.

        1. spoops*

          This is all super helpful! I think the lack of clarity is what’s really getting to me. Our department recently polled incredibly low in “trust in management” because they tend to promise promotions/say do x to get promoted and then nothing ever happens. I think asking for more info is definitely a good next step.

          1. Reba*

            With this in mind, I do wonder if the “team player” thing is really that meaningful. Alison’s warning about “team player” = lack of boundaries is worth examining for sure. But I’m kind of reading that they weren’t going to give your coworker the promotion, and they just needed a reason to tell her, and this is what they came up with.

          2. Coder von Frankenstein*

            The fact that you can’t trust your department’s leadership to keep their promises, on big important things like promotions, is a major problem, entirely separate from the “mandatory fun.” And then add “we’re faaaaaamily” on top of that…

            I hear buzzing. I think your workplace has bees.

          3. Smithy*

            Best of luck! I think that a lot of nonprofits are often fairly opaque around what’s actually needed for promotions because plans around budgets and money coming in are so dependent on external factors. So certainly ask for clarity, but I do think that ultimately there may be an bigger issue of how much ambiguity you’re comfortable with.

            Essentially, maybe your boss and your boss’s boss themselves don’t have the clearest picture of exactly when they can approve anyone’s promotion. And so they can tell you everything you can do to be the best candidate possible for a promotion, but they’re never going to be able to truly tell you if that will come in a month, six months, or two years. In that case, when you will be at the end of your rope and need to apply for other positions?

            I say all of that not because I think your organization necessarily is a problem, but because versions of that dynamic exist across many many nonprofits. So certainly advocate for yourself, but there’s probably always going to exist a level of ambiguity.

      2. Fergus The Llama Juggler*

        A Zoom Olympics actually sounds kind of fun! It’s the only kind of Olympics you’d ever catch me competing in.

  4. Pop*

    The LW also mentioned in the first paragraph that there’s a culture of everyone pitches in to help each other on projects, which they don’t want to do. This seems separate from the happy hour issue! My last job very much had a all-hands-on-deck mentality for a few key events every year. Even the CEO would take half an hour out of his day to contribute, and it went a long way. The staff (both managers and lower level) all noticed when someone wouldn’t contribute, as it was expected that everyone would pitch in and help out on some of these hectic projects. No one would care if you didn’t participate in the baby shower pool, but if you didn’t do that AND didn’t contribute to our communal work, plus didn’t show up for happy hour a few times a year, or the staff meeting during work hours, all of those things together wouldn’t paint a flattering picture.

    1. spoops*

      Hi I’m the LW! I do help with projects when I can, but this is complicated by me not having a car or place to store things (I take public transit and live in an apartment without a lot of storage). So me helping looks like less than everyone else. I also work in a very different part of the field than everyone else (think running/organizing a beach volleyball league vs. writing about sports in general) so often I CAN’T help them with projects. I move boxes and stuff envelopes and do setup for meetings when possible, but if I’m not the best person to edit their water polo coverage I do say no.

      1. Anon Unicorn*

        In those cases I would definitely talk with your manager and say, “I’ve found it difficult to lend a hand as much as I’d like because I don’t have a car and don’t have storage space as other employees do, and in some cases I don’t have the needed expertise for other jobs. Are there other ways I can pitch in so that I’m still involved as a member of the team?” There may be something else you can do to help that hadn’t occurred to them!

      2. Distracted Librarian*

        My current role involves a bit of separation (both literal, physical distance and different work) from many of my colleagues, such that it doesn’t make sense for me to be involved in some shared projects. But I try to volunteer for any that are a good fit, so I don’t give the impression that I’m not invested or not a team player. It sounds like you’re doing that, so you may be fine, but maybe consider if there’s more you can do that will work with your transportation situation and the nature of your job.

        As for the socializing, if it’s during work time, then it’s probably expected. Maybe skip if you’re unusually overloaded, but otherwise I recommend considering it part of the job and participating. If you can be off-camera, maybe participate while walking, spending time outside, or doing chores (assuming you’re WFH) to make it feel less onerous.

      3. Splendid Colors*

        Those sound like some very involved projects and storing/driving around with scenery & props for events (or whatever) is kind of a big commitment.

        I am loosely associated with a group that does a charity haunted house; currently they are working with a school booster group. Although I am terrible at construction etc. they seem happy if I show up to a few work days and hold the other end of the thing or whatever I can do with my low skill level. (If I luck out and the day I pick is a day they don’t get many people, extra brownie points.)

    2. BlueStarGirl*


      In my org you can either be an eyes-on-your-own-paper person or not-a-social-events person without it being weird, but if you do both you become the office curmudgeon

  5. lilsheba*

    I’m soooooooooo tired of companies expecting everyone to “bond” and do “team Building” events all the time. Introverts like me DON’T WANT TO! We just want to be left alone, why is that so hard to fathom?

    1. mediamaven*

      I’m an introvert and I love getting together for lunches and things with my colleagues. Not everyone who is an introvert is adverse to building relationships with their colleagues.

      1. Anonym*

        Seconded. I really like people and have a strong work network, but there’s just a much lower time limit for those activities for me than my more extraverted colleagues. And/or more recuperation needed. Introversion is not shyness, social anxiety or misanthropy (though it can certainly coincide with them).

      2. PJS*

        Lilsheba wasn’t necessarily saying that she was adverse to building relationships with colleagues. I’m an introvert and have no problem building relationships with my colleagues. I have very good relationships with almost everyone I work with. However, I don’t need to attend a party after work hours or participate in miniature golf where everyone is staring at me while I do something I suck at and don’t enjoy in order to cultivate those relationships. In my experience, when a company is talking about bonding or team building, they are talking about those kinds of activities and events, not the one-on-one interactions that I don’t mind having.

        1. mediamaven*

          She literally said she didn’t want to be expected to bond with her colleagues and she wanted to be left alone so……And she tried to make it universal to all introverts which some of us disagreed with.

          1. Workerbee*

            Well…I read “introverts like me…we” to mean introverts of the same cut & cloth as she, not all introverts everywhere and at every time.

            1. Nanani*

              Same. You can be an introvert of a different variety than Lilsheba. We come in many fun variations.

          2. lilsheba*

            I can bond just great with my co workers without the team building junk, that’s what I object to, the events. They are torture.

      3. allathian*

        You can build relationships without the events. I like the vast majority of my coworkers just fine and I’ll happily chat with them when we have the time to do so. I’m in Finland, and coffee breaks are an institution here. Before the pandemic, I always tried to take my coffee breaks with other people just to catch up. They’re nominally 15 minutes and on company time, but my bosses have never minded if I take a bit longer occasionally. All of them do so themselves when they can, it’s just a bit of informal networking at the office. If I’m honest, it’s the only thing I miss from the office, we’re still 100% WFH. At the office, I’ll only drink my coffee at my desk if I’m working on such a tight deadline and simply can’t take the time.

  6. Phil*

    I once took a job with the American branch of a Japanese company and relocated 1200 miles. I arrived with my truck load on Sunday, unloaded and started Monday. And was invited out for drinks that night. I demurred, pleading fatigue and all those boxes.
    Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t realize that after hours drinking was a part of the Japanese business culture and to say I was frozen out afterwards is an understatement. I was fired a month later, the only time in 50 years of working I was fired.

  7. Phil*

    I once took a job with the American branch of a Japanese company and relocated 1200 miles. I arrived with mymoving truck on Sunday, unloaded and started Monday. And was invited out for drinks that night. I demurred, pleading fatigue and all those boxes.
    Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t realize that after hours drinking was a part of the Japanese business culture and to say I was frozen out afterwards is an understatement. I was fired a month later, the only time in 50 years of working I was fired.

  8. The Starsong Princess*

    I consider these happy hours/Zoom scavenger hunts to be part of the job. Your goal is building relationships with colleagues, leaders and influencers. The thing is, any promotion or job reclassification requires an expenditure of political capital. It’s difficult to get people to expend to spend political capital on you if they don’t have a relationship with you. Yes, it may happen but it usually means your boss has to really push for it without widespread support. So if you aren’t participating in these events, how are you building relationships and garnering support for your promotion?

    1. spoops*

      I feel like the impression has become that I sit in a closet alone and never speak to anyone haha. I never miss meetings, formal or informal, with outside partners, organizations, or people outside the department with whom I am trying to build and/or maintain a relationship. I do attend social events when I can in order to garner more social capital. I chat with departmental colleagues through calls and DMs to maintain that capital. But sometimes I want to finish a spreadsheet and stop working early, not go to a virtual happy hour where I don’t really speak because everyone in my department wants to talk about kids or their new house, neither of which I have. If missing that HH is going to cause me professional set-backs, I want that made clear so I can fix it or find a new job.

      1. animaniactoo*

        It might be useful to think about what you DO have that you can talk about. Family Zoom that you can share a couple of nice/funny tidbits from? Restaurant/movie with sibling or friend? Do you have other people’s kids you can talk about? Niece/nephew, cousin, friend’s kids? TV show you’re addicted to that other people might be watching and you can discuss a couple of plot points? A fascinating news article you saw on the breeding habits of penguins?

        Because while they may not want to change the subject, it’s also sometimes true that the subject doesn’t change because nobody changes it and they’d be entirely open to finding out what’s fascinating about the breeding habits of penguins. Or whatever else is personal to you or that you can lightly contribute as participation.

        1. animaniactoo*

          (Note, I’m not saying this in the vein of “you have to show up more!” but more from the idea of “how to make these suck a little less when you do show up”)

        2. spoops*

          Good point! I tried in the beginning of the pandemic when these were implemented and was mostly rebuffed because “that must be a young person thing” but I should probably try again!

          1. Esmeralda*

            Your coworkers kind of suck. But then, that’s the sort of thing that sucky relatives would say, so, I guess, family!

      2. Missy*

        One thing I’m working on in therapy is developing better social skills and making connections. One of the activities that my therapist has me doing that really has helped is taking on the role if the detective when I am interacting with acquaintances/co-workers. You feel like you don’t have much to share because everyone is talking about kids and houses, and I understand that, by taking on the detective role, I can be part of the conversation and people have really positive feelings because I’m interested in their lives. Ask questions. Make it your goal to learn new information in these interactions instead of sharing information about yourself.

        So, if your co-workers are talking about their kids ask what afterschool activities they like, or if their kids are excited to go back to school. If they are older you can ask if they are thinking about going to college, what schools they want, etc. Sometimes in your investigation you might discover that you have some point of connection. (“Oh, your son wants to go to (college), I went there!”) which can lead to deeper conversation. But even if it doesn’t it will do more for the “team player” look than just being present. Even if you duck out early it will look like you are more engaged than if you passively watch the entire time.

        (Maybe this is something you already know and it very basic, but it was new for me and it has really helped me with my social anxiety by placing the goal as trying to learn new things about people vs. trying to impress them or make them like me.)

      3. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I don’t understand why you haven’t asked about it! It sounds like you’re making a bunch of assumptions based on your co-worker’s situation, but… you’re not her. And also it sounds like you do indeed participate.

        You can’t know until you discuss it. Are they dragging their feet with your promotion because there’s no money? Other organizational priorities at the moment? Have you checked in with your manager about a potential timeline– more than once?

        Right now, from an outsider’s perspective, it sounds like you’re operating based on what MIGHT be an issue without clarifying that it actually IS an issue. Kind of like, “That guy didn’t call me back, I guess he thinks I’m ugly” when the guy actually didn’t call because he lost your number.

      4. Ele4phant*

        I’m a big fan of drop-ins.

        Drop into that virtual happy hour for 15-20 minutes, say a few things, than sign off. It’s so easy when it’s virtually!

        Or if it’s in person, go get one drink, say your regrets but you’ve gotta to let the dog out (or whatever) then take off.

        Go to the restaurant for lunch, but get your order to go with an apology you’ve got to go wrap something up.

        I think showing your face for little bits of time frequently is better than participating fully on rare occasion.

      5. Tough love*

        Part of leadership is being able to “read the room.” Your office has made it clear that it feels some degree of participation in social events is part of building political capital and relationships. They’ve even said that explicitly in the case of your co-worker. All you’re doing by insisting that “I want that made clear” is showing yourself to be tendentious, incapable of reading that room.

        Moreover, I think the expectation that you put in an appearance at some corporate events is reasonable, *especially* if they are held during working hours. You do not have to attend every social event or be the person to turn the lights out, but as they say, showing up is half the battle.

        If the impression is that you “sit in a closet along and never speak to anyone,” your reaction needs to be to get thee to some social events and remedy that impression, stat, not brush it of with “haha.”

  9. BRR*

    I think the first step should be to follow up about the promotion directly. If they cite not being a team player ask for specifics because “not being a team player” is very broad. And be ready with things you’ve mentioned in the comments and maybe add something like how you’re attending what your workload allows but unfortunately you’re going to fall behind if you attend any more events.

    I’ve worked at a “we’re a family” employer and frequently pushed back. Looking back, I think it definitely was a factor in not getting a promotion (the largest factor was my area of work not being seen as important though). You might need to consider your value not being recognized here unfortunately.

  10. ele4phant*

    I feel like there are two issues at play here:

    The first is your office’s dysfunctional “We’re family!” culture.

    Separate from that is the question is how important is it to form personal relationships with your coworkers? And, I personally think it’s important to get to know your colleagues as full people, and that on occasion means going to lunch or a happy hour or a team building activity or spending 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a meeting shooting the breeze. That’s not to say you have to go EVERY time, but it’s important to know one another and have a rapport built so that when the going gets tough, you have some level of social capital and trust to call on. Building those interpersonal relationships *is* an important part of the job, and if you refuse to do it, it may impact your performance, because soft skills and often just as important as your technical ones.

    Occasionally say yes to lunch, or happy hour, with your colleagues, although, maybe stop working at this specific company because it sounds like it has problems of it’s own.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      “…spending 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a meeting shooting the breeze.”

      This does not build rapport with me. This makes me want to drill a hole through my head. The person doing it is now associated with that feeling. Don’t be that person.

      Social events and team lunches and happy hours, sure, fine. That’s what those are for. And if you want to make small talk *before* the meeting, go ahead. But when the meeting starts, get to business, please.

      1. Ele4phant*

        Hmm, I disagree.

        I manage people across the country even during non Covid times. I need to get to know them – to know their personality, their general disposition, and I need them to know me as a person not just as a floating head that tells them what to do. If I know their baseline I can better intuit when something is off.

        If they are already accustomed to sharing small parts of their lives when the stakes are low, I think it provides more comfort and trust when they need to share something big in their personal life that is impacting their work life.

        And, since they know I too am a person that goes through some things, this too helps make me more accessible.

        I realize not everyone enjoys small talk – but it does in fact have a very real value of helping people suss one another out.

        Even most technical, individual contributors have to deal with other people – if you are black box that makes it harder for your coworkers to interact with you.

        And better a couple minutes regularly to build and reinforce those rapports than less frequent but more intensive sessions right – like getting dragged to lunch or happy hours when you’d really prefer not to spend excess time with coworkers.

        1. Ele4phant*

          ETA – building social capital (I.e. the chit chat) IS part of the business. It’s the part that helps make it easier to work together.

    2. pleaset cheap rolls*

      “spending 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a meeting shooting the breeze”

      In covid times, with remote work, this can be very very important. Not from people who talk all the time, but if you don’t interact with some of the people in the meeting more than a few times a month, I think this is really important.

      In my organization we do it as a check in – people check into the meeting to say how they’re doing. Some say “Fine” or “OK but busy” or even just “Busy.” Others go deeper, briefly, if they want to share. Some say what they’re worried about or hoping for in the meeting. As much as people don’t love chit chat, it’s helpful in building esprit de corps.

  11. Tim C.*

    I roll my eyes when I hear “we treat each other like family”. I have been the recipient and witnessed some of the worst treatment at the hands of family. I would rather be treated as a colleague.

    I am of the opinion you will have to suck it up and make appearances.

  12. Sparkle Consultant*

    I really appreciate Alison’s answer here because I’ve been struggling with lots of mandatory fun at my workplace and they also say dysfunctional things like “we’re a family” here. Right now my issue is that most of their mandatory fun is in person, after hours, and wildly outside what I feel comfortable doing during a pandemic with no thought to how to make it safe.

    What I’ve done in other non profits with a less intense but still there pressure to be social to be considered doing our jobs is setting a formula for myself. Like I’d say if it starts after work, I will stay until max 7:30 pm. If there are usually 5 events a month, I’ll try to identify at least two to go to and really engage on the ones I’m there for. The key for me was setting those rules myself for myself so I felt like I had a little more control over the situation and had reflected on my boundaries in advance.

    1. banoffee pie*

      It would be better if ‘it feels like a family here’ came from employees first, not the bosses. Sometimes bosses try to force this stuff

  13. Anonforthis*

    Not so much a comment on the current issue, but more of a longer-term perspective.

    As you advance in your career, the soft skills (managing relationships) become more important and the hard skills (technical skills etc) become less important. It basically flip flops. I find this is true even as an individual contributor with no direct reports. It’s not that you don’t still need competence in hard skills, it’s just that “what got you here won’t get you there.” So whether it’s at this company, or another one in the future, whether or not there’s a “family vibe” or just a “normal company” vibe, there will still be an expectation that high performers will show up to some “social” events. I worked with a woman who made it very clear that she “was not there to make friends.” Which is fine…but advertising it made her seem overly cold. I attend these kinds of events as a regular part of my job, because my job isn’t just about using my technical skills — in large part it’s about influencing people, even though I don’t have direct reports. It’s a lot easier to say “no” to someone, or get something you need done from another department, when you’ve invested a little quality time towards relationship building. Otherwise interactions can come across as really transactional. I don’t want the only time someone hears from me to be once every 6 months when I need a report from them, for example. We’re both human beings, and while we may not be best buds, or hang out outside of work, some social finesse goes a long way. I would suggest that you figure out the quantity of working lunches/after work social activities that you’re able to tolerate, and show up to those things every once in a while. Then strategically use that time to build relationships with people in other departments and establish a rapport. Think of it as an unofficial work requirement in your job description. I can’t speak to the amount of participation this company requires to define a “team player” but I will just say that some level of participation in social events, even infrequent, is probably an expectation from any employer who wants to promote employees that “play well with others.”

    1. Lana Kane*

      Well said. I’m almost 4 yrs into my first management role and just as much as my hard skills have helped me succeed, my soft skills have too. My colleagues who lack soft skills, or who don’t think they should be important, have a harder time getting things done when they need to get buy in from other areas.

    2. Smithy*

      This really hits. I’m not saying that my job doesn’t have technical skills, but so much more of it is about having people both internal and external want to work with me. Because the reality is that there are far more people who will just assess whether or not they like me compared to having the understanding to actually evaluate my technical work process. And very few colleagues will ever want to take that time, but are going to make that greater snap judgement around whether or not they find me easy to work with/like me.

      This can all be true and valuable in really healthy work environments as well as dysfunctional ones. I will add, that for my entire career in nonprofits – I’ve never worked anywhere that had processes for promotions that I’ve found clear.

    3. Jane Austin's Tea Cozy*

      I don’t mean to sound combative, but I am curious as to why this is, just…in general, I guess. Work seems like it should be transactional; you’re there to do a job, and friendship is incidental to that. If someone only needs to talk to you every six months to get a report, why does it matter if they’re nice to you at a happy hour outside that?

      I’m potentially biased, since I’m very much a “I’m here to work and not make friends” type, plus I’ve mostly worked in highly independent positions before. But it seems to me that if someone needs something from me they need something from me, and I don’t care if they don’t know anything about me. This is setting aside basic politeness, of course–that should be standard.

      Again, not trying to be combative, just wondering why it matters when you’re all there to do a job!

      1. Midwestern Scientist*

        It’s not that it matters all of the time or in every interaction but proportionally matters more. Early in most people’s careers, the goal tends to be to produce x (some defined metric). Later in many careers, the goals shift to be more broad (managing people, interacting with other departments/collaborators, etc). For many early career types, it doesn’t really matter if Fergus from accounting knows who you are but later in many careers those connections can be helpful. This is of course not universal but in a world in which many people tie their self-worth to their job, people like to feel connected to others. No, it doesn’t actually matter if Sue knows your dog’s name, but if she feels as if you both aren’t just another drone in the corporate machine she may be willing to put your request at the top of her list

        1. allathian*

          Yes, and even in jobs where you don’t have the authority to refuse a request completely, that personal relationship can determine whether someone’s willing to go the extra mile for you or not.

  14. The Other Nigel*

    A long time ago, in a job far, far away…

    A manager that we all liked had gone off to some corporate retreat/offsite and had come back full of enthusiasm.

    “We’re all one big family,” said the manager in a meeting. I muttered to the person beside me, “And I’ve seen enough episodes of COPS to know what big families are like”.

    That led to some interesting conversations…

    1. MuseumNerd*

      LOL. When I started my current job one of my shiny new coworkers said “we’re like a family here!” To which I responded without thinking, “so . . . deeply dysfunctional?”

      I’ve been there 6 months and yeah . . . I was right on the money.

  15. Erin from Accounting*

    I’d say the root of the issue is reputation. If you’ve established that you are a friendly person who your colleagues enjoy working beside and would want to eat lunch with/go to happy hour with, then you’re less likely to take a reputation hit if you decline most social invitations. And on the flip side: if you don’t have that team player reputation, the way to build it up is to participate in more of the team building activities.

    You have to figure out where you fall on that spectrum to decide if you need to take action.

  16. EventPlannerGal*

    I think this is kind of an “it is what it is” situation. It seems pretty clear that your org places a lot of value on socialising and the all-hands-on-deck spirit; these things usually have pretty deep roots so that’s not going to change any time soon. They’re looking for team players. And it sounds from both your letter and your comments that you’re kind of starting on the back foot there in that your work and department are quite separate from the rest of the org and you have limits in what projects you can participate in (no car, no storage space). So if that’s what they value and that’s what you’re working with, you probably do need to think about other ways to increase your visibility, and while it might be annoying I do think that sitting on a Zoom call with your camera off isn’t the worst way to do that.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, I concur with this. It’s not right that showing up at Zoom happy hour is kind of a requirement, but….it is here. If you want to win, you have to play their game, and all that jazz.

      I get that having to listen to talk about houses and kids (don’t got any of that myself) is boring AF, but….they’re making it a Big Deal, so.

      1. Tough love*

        I get that having to listen to talk about houses and kids (don’t got any of that myself) is boring AF, but….they’re making it a Big Deal, so.

        So steer the conversation to something more to your liking — dogs, restaurants, the Olympics, whatever. You don’t have to be a passive participant in every small talk conversation you have.

  17. Sleeping Late Every Day*

    Reading the first part of your letter, I thought you were a department or division head, since you were able to turn down collaborative project requests besides the social ones. Then, when I saw later that you’re at an assistant level, it kind of brought me up short. In not-for-profits where I’ve worked, assistant-level staff don’t usually make decisions on what work they will or won’t accept. I was assistant-level, and those requests from other departments came through my department head, or higher, or I cleared it with them before deciding. Sometimes they’d be made as requests, as in “Would you have time for this?” and other times, it was just part of the job , as in supporting the work of the institution at large. Do you check with whoever you’re assistant to before refusing? Even if you’re doing excellent work for your own department, refusing to get involved in other projects could make you look uncooperative, stand-offish, or snobbish.

    1. BigHairNoHeart*

      I don’t think what you’re describing is universal. I’ve known plenty of people with “assistant” titles that are very autonomous and can make decisions like the OP about what work they do. It’s just a way of saying “one step below in the hierarchy” in most jobs I’ve been in.

  18. ThatGirl*

    The whole “family” thing is one small piece I’m struggling with a little at my current job, which I started in January. It’s a big company, roughly 2500 employees, and privately owned by members of the family that founded it 100 years ago. So they do like to talk about the [Company] Family a lot.

    BUT. So far at least I haven’t seen it used against anyone – activities all seem to be optional, and they genuinely seem to to care about their employees. Even so, I get a little itchy whenever talks about the [Company] Family.

  19. SummerHeat*

    Has the writer spoken to their supervisor about their workload. It is easy to retreat to having too much work to do in order to not attend things but not have communicated that to their supervisor. If I had a staffer who ducked out of events saying they had too much work, I would wonder about their productivity and communication skills to discuss the overload with me. That alone would make me question if the staffer was ready to move up in the organization. Just a different perspective.

  20. Cassiopeia117*

    As a new faculty member, I was given the role of greeting families during the freshman orientation BBQ. This involved giving them a school spirit t-shirt, their orientation guide, and pointing them in the direction to the first activity. Many people would be enthusiastic and happy, saying, “Thank you so much!” to which I (more than once) replied enthusiastically back, “No welcome!!!” instead of either “No problem!” or “You’re welcome”.

    As a greeter, I told people “No welcome”.

  21. Former Retail Lifer*

    In my experience, workplaces that say they’re like “family” actually are, but they’re a dysfunctional, toxic family. That term makes me cringe now.

    As for the workplace activities, I skip 99% of them but attend one now and then. I was told by a former boss that I needed to go to be more “visible” to people who make decisions about our chances for upward mobility. I say FORMER boss because I’ve been promoted a few times…all while being nearly invisible. I show up now and then so no one can accuse me of completely blowing everything off, but I’ve gotten promoted because I do a good job, not because I can schmooze. This isn’t going to be the case at every workplace, but, in a reasonable one, it won’t be the only thing that matters.

  22. Bookworm*

    I respect the arguments for it and all that but I honestly have never found it useful. I’m there to work, not to socialize and the idea of seeing these people after work is simply galling (Are you going to pay me? Then forget it.).

    And I’ve known and watched people who DID do the happy hours, were big on the socializing and yet it didn’t matter. They were still overworked, their requests for help were not fulfilled, it still didn’t help them “manage up” as it were.

    Not quite in the same vein but I look at the situation with looking for a new Jeopardy! host. A range of candidates, some with similar experiences and/or ties to the show or industry with some that were rather random choices, etc. Who might be the pick? Someone who put himself in the position to do so. Even someone who had experience being on the other side as a contestant isn’t it, but rather some producer.

    So, why bother? Again, I do understand the arguments for but I’ve found it really doesn’t help (my experience only).

    1. Tough love*

      “Galling”? Really? You want to manage these people, yet the thought of having to spend a few minutes with someone after work on an occasional basis is “galling”? If you truly feel that way, I don’t think you should be managing people; it comes across as misanthropic.

  23. mediamaven*

    She literally said she didn’t want to be expected to bond with her colleagues and she wanted to be left alone so……And she tried to make it universal to all introverts which some of us disagreed with.

  24. Red Swedish Fish*

    My husband and my SIL have worked at several non-profits across the east coast and being a team player and participating has always been a very big thing at every non-profit they worked at. It was a humongous change for my husband leaving the corporate world, and my SIL describes it like working with her sorority. The ones they have worked at are really like a big extended family, and they want it that way. You already have the feedback that they are not promoting people who are not regularly participating so the ball is in your court. It sounds like you already know this company and non-profits may not be a place where you thrive, that said fake it till you make it.

  25. berto*

    I worked for 2 small businesses (both orignally owned by siblings or their parents) and they both pushed heavily on socializing or at least the idea that “this is a family”. In both cases I was in high level roles that required incredibly difficult and sensitive information that put me at odds with this culture. Ultimately, I left these jobs because I could not effectively do my job due to this. My opinion, is that when you hear the word “family” associated with a workplace – run away. It is usually an indicator of a lack of governance and accountability, a culture of favorites and nepotism, and not a good place for independent professionals with outside credentials and in-demand skills.

    I do agree that being social at work is value, and developing social capital is important, but that can usually be managed with a minimum of fuss in a normal (non-family) professional environment.

  26. Esmeralda*

    Ugh, we’re faaaaaamily.

    It’s never a warm, supportive, well-functioning family, is it? It’s almost always dysfunctional and boundary-crushing. The kind of family you move an inconvenient and expensive plane trip away from.

    1. Tough love*

      Y’know, while I don’t necessarily think framing companies as a “family” is optimal, it is also possible for people to speak figuratively, rather than literally. What they mean is that they are trying to show some interest in their staff members as people, not just employees.

      1. Mannequin*

        Whatever they may think they mean, in practice, it almost always means “we resemble a dysfunctional family”, not “we respect our employees as human beings”.

  27. Urbanchic*

    Career nonprofit here! Check out what the CEO/ED and the management team are doing. If they are championing these get togethers or attending frequently and enthusiastically, I’d suggest showing up. If this is more of a staff-led thing you’re probably fine to pick and choose. Everyone is worried right now about morale – so many orgs are focusing on social activities (virtual or in person), but I truly think if you want to see if this matters to your leadership, watch what they are doing.

  28. Beeboo*

    I’ve never commented before, but I feel compelled because I hate when workplaces force the “family” narrative on employees. I find it 100% manipulative and borderline abusive, because at the end of the day, your workplace IS NOT your family and they will absolutely cut you if it is in their best interest. Kudos to you for trying to maintain boundaries in this situation; good luck!

    As unfair as it is, if you are angling for a title/salary bump and are committed to this company, it might not hurt to attend some of these functions for the near future, especially if you know of others who are being passed over for the same reason…

  29. Elle by the sea*

    I was once not considered for promotion for that reason. I had family to take care of, while my colleagues were single or prioritised partying with their work colleagues over their partner or family. They said I didn’t fit into corporate culture. Not just “the culture of our particular company” but “corporate culture“. I’m happy to not work for such a company anymore.

  30. Tough love*

    Seriously, you couldn’t spare 30 minutes every two months or so to attend an occasional happy hour? That’s not “prioritising partying” over your partner; that’s saying your partner dominates every aspect of your life, which is not how leading organizations works. If someone truly wants to be your partner, they ought to understand that occasionally work obligations are a thing, particularly if you’re gunning for a promotion.

  31. Autumn*

    I’m sad! I am not a subscriber to New York magazine and I appear to have hit my maximum number of free articles!

  32. Alexandra Duane*

    I was handed the “not a team player” line once, because I had ducked out early from a bowling-and-drinking event. I neither bowl nor drink.
    I replied, “You’re right. I’m not a team player. I’m not here to play. I’m here to work. And I AM a team worker.”
    Then I reminded this supervisor of the most recent instances of me collaborating on projects, working late when a co-worker had to leave for a family emergency, and helping another co-worker study for a special certification that I already had. I reminded her that my last annual evaluation had specifically mentioned my ability to coordinate individual assignments among my team to minimize delays.
    I asked her if drinking beer and bowling would improve my job performance. She sighed and said, “Well, no, but, you know … ” and trailed off.

  33. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    I tried to read Alison’s response but I got a pop-up on the New York Magazine site that I had reached my limit for free articles.

  34. palmtree*

    No, you shouldn’t have to. But plenty of companies insist on this rubbish, and are usually also completely hopeless at either hiring new managers, or promoting existing employees into management roles.

    Getting on with your colleagues at a happy hour, and being someone with the social skills required to be a manager, are two different things.

Comments are closed.