Coworker happy hours. Team retreats. Networking dinners.
Are “optional” employee bonding events ever really optional?
In the post-pandemic world, boundaries are increasingly blurred between work and life. While working from home allows for greater flexibility (and a casual dress code), it makes it difficult to sequester work from personal relationships. Work-life balance — or rather, imbalance — is in part due to what Penn students are all too familiar with from internships and preprofessional clubs: frequent after-hours get-togethers and coworker socialization.
Here in the United States, after-hours work events are a particularly pressing problem. We consistently fail to crack the top ten of best countries to work in, likely due to our rampant workaholic culture. The work-life imbalance isn’t a universal problem, however. Across the Atlantic, French labor laws staunchly disagree with the American idea of casual coworker mingling.
France, a country known for its pro-worker policies, recently ruled in favor of what was called “the right not to be fun at work.” This ground-breaking ruling sets a precedent for setting boundaries between work relationships and personal friendships.
The plaintiff in this case, referred to as Monsieur T., successfully sued his employer for wrongful termination. He claimed that his termination was in part due to his refusal to join in on after-hours team events. To Monsieur T.’s employer, participation was necessary for building a strong workplace culture. French courts disagreed, writing that workers have a right to workplace dignity: self-respect, autonomy, and well-being.
In other words: French employees have a right to be un-fun.
This ruling runs antithetical to our culture in the U.S. Here, there is immense pressure to succumb to workaholism and treat after-hours events as mandatory. Yet, are we forgetting about our right to workplace dignity? Can we really turn down these pseudo-mandatory work events?
In employers’ defense, some good can come from team bonding events. Organizational behavior researchers tout the benefits of team bonding events: increased productivity, strengthened interpersonal relationships, even happiness. From casual happy hours to catered formal dinners, these events provide an opportunity to converse with coworkers in a more casual setting. Employers see after-hours events as a valuable opportunity to humanize their fellow coworkers.
It also pays off to be fun at work — it is often good for your career. Networking can lead to an offer, promotion, or bonus. Particularly at the beginning of one’s career, who you know pays off. Strong relationships with higher-ups could be the deciding factor in a return offer. This is why interns are particularly prone to the pressure of saying yes to networking events. You won’t find an eager Whartonite, on the hunt for a return offer, saying no to an after-hours dinner.
Young workers bear the brunt of the burden of pseudo-mandatory events, as there is a fine line between fun and employer-sanctioned misery. Constantly pushing your boundaries leads to burnout, decreased productivity, and job dissatisfaction.
There are many reasons to turn down an invite to a post-work happy hour, particularly if you’re a member of a marginalized group. For example, women are particularly vulnerable to after-hours events gone wrong. The New Yorker, in a piece entitled “Are After-Work Drinks a Conspiracy Against Women?”, argued that women bear the burden of unpaid coworker mingling. Sexism and harassment are not uncommon at casual after-work events.
In the pressure cooker that is Penn, it’s easy to forget that we possess the power to choose what we do and how we spend our lives. While it’s difficult, you have some autonomy in setting boundaries between work and life. To take a page from the French: you have a right to not be fun.
While saying “no” to a catered dinner closes the door on networking opportunities, one has the power to make that choice. You don’t need to sacrifice sanity for a forty-minute conversation over drinks in a crowded bar.
As Adam Grant, Penn’s prominent organizational behavior researcher, recently said on social media, “Choosing not to attend an unpaid work event doesn’t reveal the absence of loyalty. It reflects the presence of other priorities.” He’s right; you’re allowed to make yourself a priority. While connections matter, a strong work-life balance will serve you better in the long run. An after-hours event is not the end-all-be-all. There are other ways to invest in yourself, from building social capital to protecting your mental health.
Networking dinners and after-hours cocktails often feel like an obligation, but the French (and Adam Grant) are right. It might not be easy to say no, but one has the right to workplace dignity. It’s your choice in how you spend your time after-hours.
FIONA MILLER is a Wharton junior studying behavioral economics and social impact from Roanoke, Va. Her email is email@example.com.