Does socializing after work feel expected as part of your job? Have seemingly endless post-work activities become more obligatory than enjoyable? Maybe you have to pick up your child from daycare. You like to keep work and personal life separate. Or you simply want evenings to unwind on your own. No matter the reason, not being able to or not wanting to socialize with co-workers is completely acceptable.
It’s daunting determining how to politely turn down invitations for socializing after work, and choosing when to join in. Learn how to protect those precious post-work hours and simultaneously create community with colleagues, and foster relationships during office hours — not after.
How to turn down invitations without compromising work relationships or career success
1. Be honest
As the adage goes, honesty is the best policy. No need to make up an elaborate excuse when declining to hang out after work. Be truthful and concise. And definitely don’t invent a story.
Modern manners and etiquette expert Diane Gottsman notes that, “I have other plans,” is all the response necessary. (Those other plans may be going home to water the plants, spend time with your kids, or listen to a favorite podcast. And that’s perfectly fine!)
If your co-workers don’t respect your answer or badger you for more information, you’re under no obligation to go into further detail. It’s not your responsibility to provide a reason another person deems acceptable.
2. Be prompt
There’s nothing worse than stringing along a host. Consequently, if you know you won’t attend, be straight up from the beginning. Don’t reply “maybe” and wait until the last minute to send regrets. This creates problems twofold. First, it’s tough for hosts to plan for space, food and beverages if they’re waiting on a bunch of maybes. Second, a “maybe” response (especially when you know the true answer deep down!) could give the impression you’re waiting for something better to come along. And that’s even worse than a timely “no.”
3. Be gracious
There’s no need to be rude or unprofessional when you don’t feel like socializing after work. (For example, try not to respond to an invitation to a fondue restaurant with, “Gross, I can’t stand cheese!”) Being polite is always a good idea — especially when declining. Be kind and reply to an invite in a way that won’t make the host feel rejected. Focus on the simple logistics of why you can’t join. For instance, “Thanks for inviting me! I can’t make it, but have a great time!” or, “I really appreciate you including me, but I already have plans.”
The friend/co-worker balance can be a delicate one to maintain. But remember: You don’t need to be besties with everyone in the office. Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner, comments in the New York Times, “Our job at work is to work. I actually argue against having true friends in the workplace, aside from maybe a handful — people you would actually want to be friends with if you didn’t work at that company.”
5. Be flexible — occasionally
Sometimes, office politics require socializing after work. But when participating, it should be because you want to, not because you feel guilty. And every once in a while, making time for socializing after work with colleagues can be beneficial.
Showing up after work hours gives co-workers and supervisors occasions to know you better. Plus, personal connection outside the office creates chances to grow professionally. While there’s no need to be the first one at the event or the last one to leave, putting in an hour could provide benefits in the long run — even if socializing after work isn’t your cup of tea.
6. Be selective
Certain group activities like team-building events, company retreats or holiday parties may be more beneficial to attend than a spontaneous weekday gathering. Assess the pros and cons and determine what works best for you and your schedule. Decide what — or who — you enjoy most. Kathryn Heath, co-author of The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power For Women, writes that “socializing the way you want to makes you more comfortable and lets people get to know you in a way that can change how they perceive you.”
Not into happy hour? Find out what other types of after-work socializing options your company offers. Have one co-worker you really enjoy? Make sure to go if you know she’ll be there. Are you a pool shark? Maybe game night is your time to shine. Regardless, when determining which events to attend, pick the ones where you’ll feel most at home.
Finally, leave when you want. Business etiquette and communications expert Barbara Pachter says, “When you find yourself feeling like leaving is in your best interest, find the host, thank them, and then leave.” Most colleagues will be glad you showed up and not give you a hard time for taking off.
7. Be present
Even if you decline invitations for socializing after work, you can initiate other opportunities to connect with co-workers. One method for encouraging engagement is simple: Put your cell phone away. Look up. Being present and making eye contact with co-workers invites interaction. Conversely, roaming the halls head down, face in your phone, puts people off.
Looking up shows your colleagues you’re open to engaging face-to-face. This gives you more chances to create positive energy at work and bond with others — whether you socialize after work or not.
Build rapport in other ways
Heath writes, “Doing less relationship building limits women’s access to sponsorship and diminishes their chances for career advancement. Developing informal relationships is one of the most important things women can do to advance their careers.” Socializing after work isn’t the only time and place to foster informal relationships. Create community during work hours, rather than after.
Capitalize on office culture
Figure out what makes your office and its employees tick. Building relationships will occur more naturally on common ground.
- Is coffee a workplace obsession? Share a new roast from your favorite cafe.
- Into fitness? Invite colleagues to the gym before work — or to join you for a lunchtime sweat sesh.
- Do your co-workers love to eat? Establish a company lunch club and sample a different local joint each month.
- Is your company passionate about sports? Set up an office pool! Institute friendly wagers no matter the season.
- Start a weekly themed “Bring Your Own Ingredient” potluck. Assemble the meal, take over the conference room, and enjoy a working lunch.
Discovering what inspires your office culture will make it easier to find common ground with co-workers. Cultivate growth and bonding anytime — not just when socializing after work.
Maximize “meaningless” time
Kathryn Heath and Brenda F. Wensil write in the Harvard Business Review that, “Legitimate time constraints are the most common reason women cite for ditching dinner with colleagues or skipping ‘optional’ work events. Because of that, it’s crucial to maximize the time we do have.”
That time comes in the form of small moments — and they add up. Have a couple extra minutes before a meeting begins? Chat with other attendees. Run into a colleague walking the same way? Strike up a conversation. Taking the elevator with a supervisor? Smile and say hello rather than staring straight ahead.
Don’t dismiss these opportunities throughout the day as “wasted” time. Instead, work to build connections with colleagues and bosses while at work. These efforts can lessen the pressure to socialize after hours.
Switch up the status quo with a walking meeting
If you think after-work events are the only places to form connections, think again. Ted Eytan, Medical Director at Kaiser Permanente and an outspoken supporter of walking meetings, believes “walking meetings lead to better employee engagement by breaking down barriers between supervisor and subordinate or between co-workers.” Steve Jobs purportedly used walking meetings to get innovative ideas flowing. So, when scheduling your next meeting, consider making it a walking one.
Make socializing after work (or not!) work for you
Dr. Hakim says it’s healthier to think of colleagues as what she calls “friendlies” — relationships that “neither require nor assume everything that goes with a true friendship.” But these “friendlies” are still people with whom you engage on a daily basis. They may also be the ones with power to advance your career. Know how to gracefully bow out of socializing after work, realize when to say yes, and don’t forget to brainstorm ways to nourish important relationships — within work hours.
Hannah Fairbanks is a writer living in San Francisco. When she’s not working on freelance projects, she’s reading, packing bento box lunches for her two young daughters, and adventuring around the Bay Area.