You're about to leave the office, when you hear a familiar voice call your name, and then ask the question you dread:

"A few of us are going to happy hour after work. Want to join us?"

It's common enough for coworkers to go out and socialize after work. But if you're part of the leadership team, and you're invited by your employees, the situation can be much more complicated.

If you accept, you risk complicating your professional relationship. If you decline, you could unintentionally give the impression that you dislike your employees or aren't interested in getting to know them.

So how do you draw the line between work and play?

First, let's take a look at the pros and cons of spending time with your employees outside of work.

 

PRO: You'll get to know your employees better

Spending time together in a small group setting allows you to get to know more about your employees than you would learn from day-to-day interaction. You may find out more about work-related matters, such as a project they've been working on but haven't had time to discuss with you.

You may even discover they have ideas, skills and interests that you were previously unaware of, which might allow them to contribute to the organization at a higher level.

 

PRO: You may build stronger relationships

A sports team. Your favorite restaurant. Your obsession with Shark Week. You never know what common interests might be the foundation of a bond with your employees.

In a diverse work environment, it's important to recognize that some people will feel perfectly comfortable sharing details from their personal lives, while others will not. Getting out of the office to socialize can provide more reserved employees a setting in which they're more at ease and willing to talk about outside interests, allowing you to strengthen your relationships.

 

PRO: You may increase employee engagement

Speaking of stronger relationships: Having a strong relationship with your employees is key to growing employee engagement. Taking the time to get to know your employees shows that you value them as members of your team.

Engaged employees give more discretionary effort than those who are not engaged, because they feel they're a part of something and want to contribute to its success. And engaged employees have been shown to have a positive effect on a company's bottom line.

 

CON: There are potential liability issues

Perhaps the most obvious drawback to socializing with your employees is the potential for liability. This is especially risky when alcohol is involved, which could lead to lowered inhibitions and lapses in judgment. For example, you may witness people who overindulge in alcohol, speak negatively about coworkers, or even make unwanted sexual advances toward another employee.

Remember: Once a manager has knowledge of something, the company has knowledge of it. If you witness inappropriate behavior, you're responsible for reporting it.

 

CON: Employees could take advantage

"Oh come on, I know I was late this morning, but you remember how much we had to drink last night!"

After hanging out in a relaxed environment, some employees might take advantage of your participation. If they misread the relationship and see you as a "buddy," they may have a difficult time separating the business and social scenarios.

 

So where do you draw the line?

When deciding whether or not to accept a social invitation, start by assessing the situation.

Who has been invited? If it's the whole department, then you may want to consider attending.

But if it's a small group, it's best to avoid it; you don't want to seem like you're playing favorites or excluding anyone.

Will there be alcohol involved? If so, remember the liability issues discussed above and consider whether it's worth the risk.

 

If you decide to attend...

Your assessment may lead you to conclude that you'd like to accept the invitation. If you do, set some ground rules to avoid trouble and keep a few things in mind:

  1. Make an early exit to reinforce the professional nature of your relationship. "I have an early meeting tomorrow" is a solid reason for leaving.
  2. You are there to socialize, not encourage alcohol consumption.
  3. They may act inappropriately toward you or another coworker. If someone has overindulged, help them call a taxi.
  4. Even though it's after hours, understand that there is still company liability in what you may witness.

 

How to decline tactfully

If you're invited out with your employees and you don't want to attend, you want to do so without hurting anyone's feelings.

Understand that your employees are really asking for some one-on-one time with you. Instead of an after-work meet-up, suggest some fun alternatives. You can set up a breakfast, or go to a coffee shop. Just make sure it's something other than the typical lunch or meeting in a conference room.

You could also suggest fun group activities to promote camaraderie with your employees. Choose activities that will help you work on a specific area of development, such as a painting class to improve collaboration. Recommend a variety of events so you don't alienate those who aren't able to attend after work.

If you suggest activities during the work day and notice that your employees are unable to attend, it may be an indication that their workload is off-balance. Use it as an opportunity to assess what they have on their plates and realign their priorities as needed.

Remember: When employees invite you out to be social, they just want to spend some time with you! Create other opportunities for them to do so, and they won't think twice when you decline the occasional happy hour invite.

 

What other HR issues are you struggling with? Get our free e-book, 7 Most Frequent HR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, for more helpful tips.

Published on: Sep 26, 2016