During the twenty-three years I spent in management, there were many occasions when I participated in social events with my employees. Likewise, I attended parties where my supervisors were present.
By participating in hundreds of receptions, dinners, celebrations, award ceremonies, fund raising campaign kickoffs and other out of the office happenings, I have learned which communication behaviors work and which ones backfire.
You will agree that, handled wisely, social time with employees can boost morale. Employees welcome chances to get to know the boss as a person, not just a manager. During the frenetic work week, they encounter the boss as the source of discipline, assignments, occasional reprimands and, typically, very little personal chit chat. So it's refreshing to be around the supervisor when she showcases her humor, asks about your family and hobbies, and gives an unrestrained laugh.
However, both employees and bosses should be aware that the social scene does not erase the workplace lines of authority. Example: Because the boss likes your personality at a party does not mean you will get the next promotion, which depends instead on your professional skills.
Here are seven guidelines that every employer and employee should keep in mind for after-hours mingling:
ONE: Avoid off color humor. The jokes you would tell your golf buddies could jeopardize your professional reputation if you share them with workplace colleagues, no matter how informal the setting. True, they might laugh out of courtesy, or maybe from discomfort. Yet you risk losing their respect. Play safe. Don't tell any joke that you wouldn't tell at an office staff meeting.
TWO: Refrain from touching, other than a handshake greeting, unless you happen to go dancing with the group. Draping an arm around a colleague might prompt an eventual lawsuit, especially when you don't give that person an expected raise. And the employee who caresses the boss can create an image of fakery and pandering.
THREE: Drink moderately. Every year, holiday parties, company picnics and similar outings become career graveyards for bosses and employees who want to become "the life of the party."
Sometimes we assume that two more drinks will help us talk more easily. That's a mistake. Two more drinks will encourage you to talk more--period. The impaired speaking and unsteady walk that follow those extra cocktails could brand you: "lush," "a drunk," "undisciplined," or something similar.
Along those lines, never mention that drinking is important to you. Stay away from "Nothing like a stiff drink at the end of the day to help a guy unwind." Whimsically, we slip into comments like that, such as "Thought that bartender would never bring our order." Although you are trying to inject a bit of levity into the conversation, the quips could backfire, categorizing you as a problem drinker.
FOUR: Make sure you circulate among everyone present, not just the managerial group you feel most comfortable with. The person who talks with his or her clique and avoids everyone else nullifies the inclusive good will the event is intended to foster. Spend time with line employees as well as "the suits."
FIVE: Avoid shop talk. Demonstrate that you have an interesting, meaningful life away from the corporation. Nobody wants to hear your opinions about a five year plan, a drop in sales or the employee you had to fire. As an old song advises, "talk happy talk, things that people like to hear."
Stay well informed about major sporting events, releases of new movies, great places to vacation, new restaurants your friends have recommended, bestselling books and national events. Definitely, party goers want to talk about them, not corporate problems and plans.
SIX: Listen attentively. Good listeners become our favorite people. We move away from motormouths who dominate conversations. Encourage others to talk, with comments like "very interesting," "tell me more," and "What happened next?"
When Stephen Covey wrote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he titled chapter five, "Seek first to understand, and then to be understood." Follow that advice, and you'll become the hit of the company's social outing.
SEVEN: Mind your manners. If the occasion includes a meal, pay special attention to your table etiquette. You want to look like you belong at top-tier banquets. Illustrate that you have acquired polish and grace.
Need a refresher on manners and other public protocol? Then I suggest the book 5 Steps to Professional Presence, by Susan Bixler and Lisa Scherrer Dugan.