Leaders: To socialize or Not

I am often asked by students if it is a good or bad idea for a leader to socialize with subordinates outside of work. There are a lot of tradeoffs, and this is a complex question. I break down the variables in this article.

It is often a quandary for leaders to know whether to socialize with workers at after work events. Here are some tips that may help the decision process:

1. It is always situational. There are times where it is expected for a leader to participate and there are other situations where it would be dead wrong for a leader to socialize. You need to use good judgment and follow some consistent pattern.
2. If you have a corporate policy on this subject, you need to follow that. Often the corporate ban on socializing has an escape clause for certain types of events.
3. The most important consideration is whether the employees and you are all comfortable with your attendance. If several people (including you) have some reservations, it is better to take a rain check.
4. If you decide to attend certain types of functions, like for example birthday parties offsite, you need to do the same for everyone when schedules permit. If you attend the party for one person but not another, you will appear to be playing favorites.
5. It would be a good idea to have an open discussion at work about this subject to get an idea how most people feel about it before establishing your pattern.
6. If alcohol is involved, you need to especially wary of accepting drinks. I remember one supervisor who became totally drunk at an event because the underlings kept buying him cocktails. It was a very bad scene.
7. Unless you have a very friendly group, it is best to avoid any activity that involves physical contact, like dancing for instance. You can quickly get into a compromised position quite innocently.
8. Take notice of the habits of other leaders in your organization that you respect. If they refrain from attending social events, then you want to be especially conservative.
9. Try to avoid parties that start out in public restaurants but migrate to one person’s house.
10. Do not participate in any kind of gambling when out with employees.
11. Do not volunteer to take intoxicated employees home. Get them a Taxi cab.

Those are some general precepts that may help you think about the issue more deeply. Here are a few suggestions of how to limit your risk.

1. Consider making a brief appearance near the start of the event, but not participate in the entire thing. This allows you to show respect for everyone, but avoids a lot of jeopardy. Watch the body language carefully to see if people are offended at your leaving early. If so, stay longer, but leave as soon as you reasonably can.
2. The best place to put limits on your outside socializing is when you are at work. Show by your body language and hesitation if you think you might be getting into a compromising situation.
3. Remember even though you are “off duty,” your relationships with the people who work for you is still very much “on duty.”
4. Whenever there is a doubt, always take the most conservative posture.

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