ask a boss

‘I Don’t Want to Be Like a Family With My Co-Workers’

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Dear Boss,

I work for a nonprofit organization. My department is a very close-knit one, with lots of talk about being “a family” and always being willing to help people out on projects even if it isn’t in our job description.

I make a point of being firm about work-life boundaries. I am politely resolute about my lunch breaks and out-of-office time and do actually tell people “no” when I am too busy with my own work to help out on projects or participate in “fun” department activities. I have also been outspoken in group meetings when managers attempt to push boundaries because of the aforementioned “family” vibe (like trying to make anonymous feedback non-anonymous because “we’re all family and we can be honest with each other”). I do great work though, and my supervisors are always very complimentary.

Recently, however, a friend in my department was told she would not receive a promotion because she is not a “team player.” When pressed, HR and her supervisor mentioned her absence from department-bonding activities.

I am currently far exceeding my “assistant” job description and am also seeking a title/compensation change to reflect the project manager role I’m now performing. Despite recommendations from previous and current managers that I be promoted, my organization is dragging their feet. I am beginning to worry that if I asked  why, they would tell me that I am also not a “team player.” 

The extent of this role means I am often too busy to join in fun department activities. I also, frankly, don’t want to participate. The shift to working from home full time has been extremely rough on my mental health. I am in a better place now than I was before, but I still am not motivated to spend the limited spare time I have playing games with colleagues. I do make chitchat through email and instant message.

Is it normal that forgoing a Zoom scavenger hunt would damage my chances at promotion this heavily? Do I just need to suck it up and pretend to want a deeper-than-cordial relationship with my colleagues? 

There are workplaces where even if you do excellent work, you’ll be seen as insufficiently invested if you don’t show up at enough office social events.

This is ridiculous, since your excellent work provides plenty of evidence that you’re invested … and frankly, it’s hard to see why your internal level of investment is even relevant if you’re consistently churning out high-level work. Plus, if any of these social activities are outside of work hours, people who have child-care responsibilities or other obligations in their non-work hours will be at an immediate disadvantage.

To answer your question of whether it’s normal: It’s not “normal” in the sense of healthy or reasonable, but it’s also not as uncommon as it should be.

And relatedly, that “we’re like family here” thing that your office likes to do? Also not healthy or reasonable. In fact, it’s hugely problematic. You tend to see that bandied about in offices where boundaries are routinely violated and you’re expected to work long hours, accept lower pay, not complain about bad management, and generally prioritize loyalty to your employer over your own interests — even if your employer doesn’t reciprocate that loyalty in any meaningful way. And of course, work isn’t a family. It can be a place where you have warm, supportive relationships with colleagues and genuinely care about each other, but it’s also a place that might fire you or lay you off and where you are trading your labor for a paycheck and need to look out for your own interests, just as your employer will look out for theirs.

Offices that like to say they’re like a family are some of the ones most likely to penalize you if you don’t take part in workplace social events. They tend to have a built-in distrust of people who don’t buy into the “family” model, and in those cases “not a team player” often really just means “has boundaries around their non-work time and advocates for their own needs.”

That said, it seems like you’re assuming this will definitely be an issue for you in this job, but it doesn’t sound like that’s been made clear yet. The fact that your friend’s absence from team-bonding activities was mentioned in a conversation about her not being promoted is alarming! But it’s possible that there was more to it than that — like maybe her manager was suggesting a wide range of things she could do to counter a particular impression, and attending more team events was one suggestion of many. It’s understandably unsettling, though, and you’re right to be thinking about it.

The easiest way to find out is to ask your boss directly. There’s no reason you can’t say, “I’m finding that my work keeps me really busy and it’s hard for me to participate in department activities like X and Y. Is that likely to harm the way I’m perceived here or be an obstacle to my ability to move up here over time?” If that feels more direct than your relationship with your boss allows, a different approach is to simply ask what you would need to do to be a strong candidate for a promotion and see what your boss’s answer focuses on.

You should also pay attention to who in your office does get promoted. If they’re all people who heavily lean in to office socializing, that’s useful info. If people who do good work but don’t show up for virtual happy hours and Zoom scavenger hunts don’t ever seem to get rewarded, that’s even more useful to know.

If it does turn out that yes, you’re going to be held back professionally because you don’t socialize enough, that doesn’t mean that you need to change what you’re doing. Faking more enthusiasm is certainly one option (and some people decide to do that, calculating that the trade-off is worth it to them), but you also have the option of concluding that this culture doesn’t work well for you and you’d rather look at jobs that don’t come with this expectation attached.

Before you do that, it’s worth noting that a lot of office jobs do have some component of expected bonding time! But you should be able to find workplaces where it’s mostly confined to things like “spend an hour at a happy hour once or twice a year” and “show up at the annual holiday party,” as opposed to a more time-intensive, ongoing obligation.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Don’t Want to Be Like a Family With My Co-Workers’