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When Is a Work Party Really Just Work?

Pretty much always.

by Rick Paulas; illustrated by Kitron Neuschatz
Apr 24 2018, 3:10pm

“Let me tell you about the worst fucking office party of all time,” starts Hayley Terris, a producer based in Los Angeles. For months, they’d been hearing the hype. Emails from the East Coast headquarters were flooding in about the party’s guaranteed epicness, management kept dropping hints about everyone making damn sure to get a taxi or Uber. “I’m thinking they’re going to rent out Knott’s Scary Farm or Universal Studios."

But cracks in the facade soon began to appear.

The week before, the company made it clear they wouldn’t be paying for parking. Quickly, the signals subtly shifted from “optional” to “obligatory,” that instead of a late-night rager, this would take place in the middle of the work day. Also, hourly contracted employees like Terris wouldn’t be getting paid. “I’m working 70 hours a week, exhausted, and now I have to take off the middle of the day to attend this party?” she says. “And I’m not going to get paid for it?”

But at least it’d be epic?

“We walk in, and there’s a guy DJing from a computer playing Maroon 5, and a little platform that was three-feet by three-feet for dancing,” Terris says. “And you can’t get drunk and bitch about this, because there’s big corporate people here! I want to get drunk, but I can’t. I want to leave, but I can’t. I was trapped.”

Sometimes "party" is just another word for job creep

“Work parties” are ostensibly social events that takes place with those you work with, either outside of the office or outside of normal business hours, for which you are not being paid to attend, because it’s optional at attend. Except it's not really optional because of the office politics that bubble to the surface whenever the lines between “work” and “not work” get blurred.

They're the social version of job creep, but at least there’s usually free food and booze? If cheap wine, drug store cheese, and crackers aren't enough to placate you, you might wonder how to respectfully get out of these events. Or, if you even can without risking getting fired.

To answer the latter question, it’s important to know if the specific work event is “mandatory” or “optional.” Generally speaking, if it’s not the latter, then it’s the former, meaning that the party should be treated as simply an extension of work hours. If you’re a salaried employee, that means you both have to go and also won’t get paid anything extra. But if you’re an hourly employee, you can’t be forced to attend without compensation.

Do you really have to show up?

It’s hard to say whether or not any specific worker should attend their work party, as the variables for industry, personality, and any party itself are too varied to allow for broad advice. Do you like your co-worker? Maybe feel free to attend their birthday. Do you hate the owner? You still might want to go to their kickass pad for a private show by Cardi B while you ruminate how to get out of working for them.

Alison Green, author of the forthcoming book Ask A Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, has tackled the murky weirdness of work parties for years over at her website, Ask A Manager. Green’s advice to the many who don’t want to attend? “Show up for an hour, put in an appearance, walk past your boss a couple of times so they see you’re there, then go home,” she says, before offering a tip for how to justify leaving early. “If you have kids, they’re a good excuse.”

For constantly recurring work events, like team-building happy hours or monthly office birthday parties, Green says there’s more leeway to get out of them. “Sometimes the way to do it is to come up with outside of work commitments that happen to interfere with the events,” she says. “Maybe now you have a book club that night?”

Figure out what's in it for you

While there’s value in receiving free food and booze at work parties, they’re not exactly free. Theoretically, there’s an amount of money that has been spent, however minimal, and that workers could be getting instead. But beyond that, the unpaid, after-hours work party is providing a benefit to the owner by essentially getting free labor: Put people together with nothing in common other than work, and see how long it takes for them to start talking about work.

In fact, Green’s long-held advice for anyone considering attending a work party is to treat them as business functions, not social ones. In other words: A work party is always work.

“It can be really dangerous, because the setting and the alcohol makes you think the rules are different,” Green says. “But it’s still a work event. Even if it’s a fun work event, it’s still a work event, so the rules of what to avoid are still very much in effect.”

What rules? No talking about your sex lives, probably don’t get too into political or religious debates, and watch that gossip. “The whole point of alcohol is to lower your inhibitions, and that could have a lot of consequences for you when you’re back at work,” she says.

But even without the booze, an office party is a rare blurring of the lines between the employer and employee classes. And while it may feel like everyone’s on the same level when the ties are undone and everyone is lounging around outside of the cubicle confines, only one class can fire the other.

Yet still, from the worker’s perspective, if they don’t mess up, parties can offer opportunities to show that they care enough to attend—an action that can only help their standing with the company. It sucks but schmoozing over booze is a tried-and-true way to get people in positions of power to pay you more.

Whether you’re a full-time employee looking to advance in the company, or a gig economy worker fighting for more gigs, the value you receive from the party are the deeper connections made, not the indigestion from the stale cheese and boxed wine.