ask a boss

‘My Boss Keeps Trying to Hang Out With Me’

Illustration: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I work at a small nonprofit. My department has a new supervisor this year, Jane. While she’s a lovely person, the transition to her management style has been … rough. She wants her hands in absolutely everything, and she wants to make almost every decision about every project. My co-worker Leah and I were used to largely being left alone on projects, and they got done well and on time, so a lot of the things she’s trying to “fix” about us don’t really feel like problems. What feels like a problem is this:
Jane is part of a casual bowling team with some folks from other departments. She has decided Leah and I should join. I get the feeling that she thinks spending more time together as humans is going to reduce friction at work. I do not feel this way. Her supervision is an adjustment for me, yes, but I am working on making that adjustment, largely by liking my job less and making my peace with that. We might well be friends under different circumstances — we are all women around the same age and have similar interests — but I am simply not interested in committing to a weekly social activity with my boss.
Something I am willing to do is a monthly-at-best drink after work with everyone. Leah decided to arrange one of these. Then, thanks to conflicting schedules, it turned into “tag along to bowling!”
I went, because I felt backed into a corner. I had a fine time. And I have zero interest in doing it again. The work chatter has turned to how awesome bowling is, and “when are you two coming back, you did great, weren’t we a great team, the team needs you, it’s nice to hang out with other departments.” And Leah enthusiastically agrees that this was awesome and she’d love to do it every week — but aww, darn it, she has kids and dogs, gotta run, sorry! I, meanwhile, have politely demurred and made banal excuses for four weeks now. I have outright said that I am too tired after work to do anything but go home (usually true). I have carefully avoided saying, “Maybe next time!” And I have stepped up the pleasant chat during work hours to reassure Jane I don’t hate her, even though it feels distracting from the work I’m apparently doing wrong.
I am afraid if I get more explicit about not wanting to be friends outside of work, it will chill the relationship even further. But I also wish she’d take the hint. Being friends would not warm the work relationship, it would complicate it. I’m not going to enjoy hearing “you format emails completely wrong” any better from someone I bowl with — in fact, I’d rather just format emails the way my exacting supervisor wants, and go the heck home after. Am I being unreasonable? Other people don’t hang out with their bosses, right? Or am I wrong — does getting to know your boss better in neutral situations actually tend to improve a frustrating work dynamic? Should I suck it up and bowl every three weeks or so?

I mean, sure, it can be beneficial to build personal relationships with colleagues, and getting to know each other in less formal settings can help do that. But your boss is doing this wrong.

First of all, no manager should ever pressure her employees to socialize with her outside of work. It’s fine to create opportunities for people to bond over a fun activity – but it needs to be truly voluntary, and managers need to keep in mind there’s no universal definition of “fun,” which means you’ll almost always have some people who prefer to opt out. They also need to keep in mind that the power dynamics inherent in the relationship mean people will worry about whether they really can opt out without professional damage — and so managers need to use a light touch when it comes to encouraging attendance on things that are supposed to be voluntary.

Managers also need to be sensitive to boundaries with their direct reports. Managers and their employees can of course have warm, friendly relationships, but they can’t be friends in any real sense — not when the manager’s job is to judge the employee’s work and make decisions that affect their livelihood. Few people want to receive critical feedback on their work from the person they had drinks with last night — and few managers in that situation are good at giving it.

Now, none of this means that Jane shouldn’t have invited you to her weekly bowling team. There’s nothing wrong with extending that invitation, especially since the other people on the team are colleagues too. But she does need to chill out with the pressure to attend.

That said, I wonder if you’re putting too much weight on her enthusiasm about bowling. She sounds awfully persistent, and it’s annoying that she’s not picking up on your cues (and “I am too tired after work to do anything but go home” makes it pretty clear that you’re not into it). But it’s possible that Jane isn’t awesome at reading cues, but would respect a clear, “It’s just not for me.” Since the less direct approaches aren’t working, that’s where you’ve got to go next:

· “Bowling isn’t my thing, but thank you!!”
· “Bowling isn’t my cup of tea, but I’d be up for doing a happy hour every month or so if you wanted to do that.”
· “I don’t enjoy bowling, so I’m not going to join the team. But it’s great that the company has this going on for people who like it.”

Once you deliver those, if she keeps up the bowling chatter, feel free to ignore it! You’ll have told her clearly that you’re not going to participate, and if she wants to rave about bowling all the time, she can do that without you feeling obligated to change your mind.

The other piece of this is your sense that Jane thinks socializing outside of work will improve your work relationship. You didn’t say exactly what’s making you feel that way, so I’m assuming she hasn’t said that explicitly. Given that, I think you can just continue cheerfully declining bowling and being appropriately warm at work (friendly, not friends). But if it starts to feel like something you’ve got to address, or if the invitations increase in number, try saying, “Thanks for inviting me to these after-work events. I’m usually not available for anything after work, but I’d be up for a team potluck or something else we schedule during work hours.” (I know you’ve already tried saying you’re usually tired after work, but I think you need to spell it out more clearly: “I am not available for anything after work.”)

That said, might there be something to the idea that getting to know each other better could make things less strained at work? Sure, there sometimes is. Building your relationship with a colleague, including a manager, can give you more good will toward that person, help you communicate better, and make you more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they’d otherwise be frustrating you. But there are lots of ways to build that rapport during the workday itself, and it’s understandable to not want to spend outside-of-work time with a boss who’s wedged herself firmly under your skin. And frankly, Jane’s overbearing insistence about this would try anyone’s patience.

But as an investment in your own quality of life at work, it might be worth experimenting with accepting a couple of these invitations if you’re not dead-set against it. Go, socialize, and see if it feels like it changes anything on your side or hers. (It doesn’t have to be bowling! Suggest drinks again and announce a firm “no last-minute bowling” policy.) Who knows! Maybe if you feel more comfortable together, it will pay off in a more comfortable working relationship, in which case it would be a worthwhile investment in less aggravation at work. And if it doesn’t, then you can set the boundaries that feel right to you without second-guessing them.

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 Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘My Boss Keeps Trying to Hang Out With Me’