The Unintended Consequences of Office Social Events

The office holiday party; the company softball league; the baby shower for the woman who sits three cubicles down the hall; happy hour with your co-workers: These are all part of the social rhythms and obligations of the modern workplace — some company sponsored, others initiated by employees — ostensibly meant to help us form and maintain close relationships with our colleagues.

But according to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, these teambuilding activities can have unintended consequences for certain employees. While social events help homogenous teams form close bonds, they do not have the same benefits for racially diverse groups of co-workers. In a new paper, titled “Getting Closer at the Company Party: Integration Experiences, Racial Dissimilarity, and Workplace Relationships,” published in February in Organization Science(, Rothbard’s team found that members of racially diverse teams felt less comfortable and less happy when participating in events that merge their personal and work lives than their counterparts in homogenous teams.

“From an organizational perspective, these kinds of activities are done with pure intentions — managers are trying to cultivate an office atmosphere where people feel welcome and part of a community. But managers need to be sensitive to what others may be feeling,” Rothbard says. “When companies sponsor social activities for their employees or initiate a diversity training program, they need to ensure they are creating an atmosphere where employees are likely to feel comfortable and have a good experience.”

Rothbard acknowledges that fostering close bonds among a racially diverse group of co-workers is not easy. “There is no straightforward, easy fix. These dynamics are deeply embedded in our social structures — not just in the workplace, but in our culture.”

eVo Associates takes a different tack on this issue, noting that employees with aligned objectives do not have to be addressed via the social structure but can be extremely productive and happy in their work environment.  Over the decades since the sixties the American workplace has shifted toward the concept of social interaction building work performance.  While a plus in any workplace, agreement amongst employees and managers about what they want to accomplish is much more powerful a tool than any social or outside work event can every hope to be.  So provide the social contact if you want, but focus on-the-job for satisfaction every time.

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