Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
How can I successfully get out of lunches with coworkers? When I say no, they try for another date. And another and another. How can I politely say, "I'm not interested in spending my one work-free hour in the day with coworkers?" I don't like spending the money and I don't like wasting the calories. I feel compelled to say yes when my boss asks, but I don't want to! Having lunch with a boss, whether you like them or not, means you have to be "on." I'd like to spend my lunches doing what I want. How can I say no without alienating my coworkers and boss?
If you say something that is essentially "I don't want to spend time with you," you can't really avoid alienating people. So you need an answer that's about what you are doing with that time instead -- an answer that's about doing X, rather than not doing Y. For instance, you could explain that you're running errands at lunch, or like to spend that time walking and decompressing, or that you usually read at lunch. And you have to say in a way that still sounds friendly. There's a difference between "No, I read at lunch" and "Oh, no thank you, I usually read at lunch, but thanks for asking me!"
That said, it's not a bad idea to occasionally have lunch with coworkers, even if you don't do it most of the time. It's an investment in your relationships at work, and that can pay off in your professional relationships, ability to get things done in your office, networking when you leave this job, and the way you're perceived. And yes, it might feel annoying that you have to do that, but some relationships work that way, and it's in your interests to recognize that reality. That doesn't mean you need to eat with them every day or every week, but once a quarter or so isn't a bad idea.
However, that's for your coworkers. Your boss might a different story. Are her invitations only occasional, or is she suggesting lunch regularly? Assuming it's only occasional, you should really suck it up and go. Investing in your relationship with your boss is hugely valuable -- plenty of business gets done at lunches with managers, in ways that you might never predict, and opportunities to talk with your boss informally often come with opportunities for feedback, mentoring, and overall insight into your company's work that will be enormously useful to you. Plus, plenty of managers deliberately choose to have important conversations over lunch (about development, promotions, concerns about fit, and other topics), believing it's a less charged environment. So if your boss asks you, go -- unless it's regular thing, in which case there's more room to treat it the way I suggested you do with coworkers.
And for what it's worth, I get how annoying this can be. I take my time alone very seriously, and I don't like it being encroached on either. And if you really feel strongly about it, you can choose to take a hard line on this stuff, but you've got to do that with the understanding that there's a trade-off you'll be making in terms of how you're perceived ... and not just in social/cliquish kind of ways (which you might not care about), but in ways that can have a real impact on your career.
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