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A reader writes:
I've recently gotten a job at a nice company and everything's great, except this upcoming Christmas there's a holiday party and, well, truthfully I don't want to attend. It's not because I dislike any of the people there. I'm just not really a social animal and I don't really enjoy those sorts of events.
How much of a risk do I run if I decline? And how do I say that in a way that doesn't insult anybody? My boss hasn't yet approached me about this, but I get the feeling he soon might.
For the record, I'm a staunch opponent of making office parties and other social events mandatory -- whether officially or unofficially. When an event is intended to be a morale-building treat, penalizing people for not attending is counter to that aim.
However, that's advice for employers. On the employee side of things, you're still left trying to figure out how to navigate this without negatively impacting the way you're perceived.
I do think that it's fine to bow out if doing so is no big deal at your company. In that case, you can simply say that you have a scheduling conflict and unbreakable plans that night.
However, there are other companies where you're really expected to attend and you'll be penalized if you don't. And even managers who claim the parties are optional often do care at some level if you don't show up -- so if you're sensing any pressure, it's usually wise to assume that you should treat this as a professional obligation like any other. (And this is a more reasonable expectation if you're in a management role. The higher up you go, the more you're expected to appear at these events, so that you don't create the impression that you're too important or simply don't care to mingle with those under you.)
But if you're dreading going, keep in mind that you don't need to stay for the whole thing. You can show up, spend an hour there, maybe two, and then leave. And really, you can look at it like any other part of your job that you don't love but which you do because it's part of staying in good graces with your company -- like attending a really boring all-staff meeting. At only a couple of hours a year, it's actually far less onerous than most boring requirements of any given job. Plus, this is your employer's attempt to show you hospitality. In general, there's an argument for accepting such an invitation from the people who sign your paychecks, particularly when it's only once a year.
Alternately, you can decide to bow out, but you should realize that there might be a cost to doing that -- and I'd question whether it really makes sense to pay that cost just to avoid a few hours of eating cookies and listening to bad holiday music.
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