Happy Hour Can Create Workplace Unhappiness

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 27, 2009
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Getting together with co-workers at the local pub sounds innocent enough, but it can come with a heaping side order of job pressure in the current economic climate.

There could be job repercussions for the employee who can’t or won’t attend happy hour or some other informal after-work social event, some fear. The situation also brings up employee relations or diversity issues for the employer.

Transportation issues, a second job, family responsibilities, flexible schedule arrangements, and a desire to avoid a drinking and smoking atmosphere for personal, cultural or religious reasons are reasons some employees might not attend happy hour functions.

However, “some people are feeling if they don’t buddy up to the managers, that managers play favorites,” and that not showing up will hurt their chances of keeping, or moving up in, their job, says Beth Carvin, a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member with more than 20 years’ experience in recruiting, HR, business management, sales and marketing.

“HR needs to be aware of the issue. It’s not an easy issue, because there are some pros to the employee who’s willing to go above and beyond and participate, and it does show an employee is committed to the organization and they’re engaged,” Carvin told SHRM Online. “Those are all wonderful things. … Yet we have to be mindful and cautious and minimize the risk of it becoming discriminatory or affecting the protected classes. It’s a very challenging issue from the HR perspective,” said Carvin.

She is the founder and CEO of Nobscot Corp., a provider of exit interview management software, and she has heard employee concerns voiced in exit interviews and survey responses.

“The reason we even started looking at [this issue] is because of the advice some of the experts are saying in blogs to the HR folks about trying to decide who to retain in layoff situations. There are a lot of suggestions out there about people who have broad networks, who are well connected in the organization, and that should be taken into account” when layoff decisions are made, she said.

“They’re actually saying when you start looking at the qualifications of the employees, the one area you should take into account is the breadth and depth and length of their internal network,” she told SHRM Online.

And it does happen.

“When people are on the chopping block, the decision on who is going or who is staying is really about who is more approachable, who people trust and who brings more than a hard-working attitude to the table every day,” said Garrett Robinson in an e-mail.

Robinson is CEO of G.R.E. Inc.—the Garrett Robinson Experience, which deals with product branding—and chief creative officer of Infinite Marketing.

“I have had employees that came and hung out for a few cocktails or went bowling after work. When we had to let people go, it was easy for us to let someone go who we really didn’t know that well outside of work” vs. someone who had participated in events outside the office, he said. “Understanding how people think at work is a lot easier when [you] see them outside of it.” Organizations have to be cautious that employment decisions are not based, even unconsciously, on such factors as who plays for the company softball team or who goes out for a beer with the managers, Carvin pointed out.

“HR’s job is to minimize it, but, regardless, it happens and there are some valid reasons why the extra networking does give the person some extra credibility and skills and competencies for the organization. For HR, it’s challenging,” she said. “

Then you have the good employee who does a great job while they’re working and says, ‘My personal time is my personal time,’ ” even as research shows that “there is some benefit to a person who is better connected within the organization.”

Factoring in attendance vs. nonattendance at after-work events when making job-based decisions could have an adverse impact on certain groups, too.

“Women are still the primary caregivers when it comes to after-work pickup [of children] and family responsibilities,” Carvin noted, “and so if the women are taking on a greater burden of family responsibility and don’t have the [time] … then it’s more likely they’re going to be the ones left out.”

Attending after-work functions is tricky, Robinson acknowledged. “If you have family obligations, then that’s what you need to handle, no matter what. If people at your job don’t respect that, then it’s really not the place you want to work when things turn around anyway.”

For others, Robinson suggests attending after-work functions even if it’s a brief, occasional appearance.

“Don’t feel like you always have to show up; we all have outside obligations. Just make sure you at least show up for 30 minutes and really try to get to know the people you work with in a more relaxed environment,” he said.

“For the people with second jobs, all you really can do is work hard and reach out to co-workers on the weekends if you have free time,” Robinson said. If transportation is an issue, consider asking a co-worker for a ride home.

What HR Can Do

Have set criteria on which a manager’s employment decisions are based. “You need to have your managers give you some really objective reasons” for their layoff or promotion decisions. “It can’t be just ‘this guy is a great guy,’ ” Carvin said. “It’s really easy for a manager to unconsciously pick the ones he goes out and has the beer with.”

Adding to the challenge for HR is that each department is responsible for deciding which positions are to be retained when layoffs come into play, she added.

Evaluate on a case-by-case basis. “Some positions, such as sales/marketing, require more time spent in after-work events,” observed Karen Fuqua, president of Fuqua Consulting Group LLC. “However, other positions—say, education or health care—do not typically require this type of time investment.”

Create other ways for employees to connect informally across the organization. “Facilitate some informal bond-building during the workday” that allows remote employees to participate, Carvin suggested.

Consider establishing an in-house social network where employees can set up chat boards and bond over non-work-related interests. “That way you don’t exclude people who can’t participate after work. You can have a virtual drink instead,” Carvin said, like the Bacon Hut on SHRM’s “HR Talk” that “opens” on Fridays.

Transcend the event. Even if an employee does not attend a real-life happy hour with co-workers, he or she can use online social networking to network, observed Greg Masiewich, manager of marketing and online communications for IQ Partners Inc., an executive search firm.

"People know the many benefits that come out of networking—insight into jobs that aren’t posted, job leads, referrals, and just overall expanding your network,” he told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

“The nice thing,” he continued, “is many of these events transcend the event itself, and discussion and sharing continue online via Twitter, Facebook and a multitude of other social networks and communication tools. “

So even if you can’t make a certain event, you can still participate afterward or even during. Most events now set up hash tags for Twitter so that people can easily find conversations taking place around a given event. This makes it easy for people to participate remotely and converse with those that are there.”

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