Each Monday, BND staff writer Brittney M. Helmrich will answer your questions about careers, leadership, office life and social media in her advice column, "Dear Brittney." Got a professional problem you just can't figure out? Send your conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Dear Brittney" to have your questions featured.
I've been working at a great company for a few years and am getting a reputation as the "person who never goes out to happy hour." I really like the people I work with and don't mind going out sometimes, but this is becoming a 2-to-3-night weekly ritual. I don't want this to affect how I'm perceived in the workplace, and now it appears that I'm on the outside looking in when it comes to projects they work on — they could include me, but don't. How do I find a balance?
- Accidentally Antisocial
Dear Accidentally Antisocial,
You already know this, but I just want to start this by reiterating that you're under no obligation to go to happy hour, and it's unfair that your co-workers are excluding you just because you don't want to go out drinking with them every other day. It's funny how happy-hour outings can become so important even when they have very little to do with your professional responsibilities. Enjoying a few drinks with your co-workers can be fun and a good way to blow off some steam after a stressful work week, but no one should ever make you feel like you don't belong just because you don't or can't attend.
Personally, I relate to your happy-hour problem a lot, as I'm sure a lot of people do. At a previous job, I was rarely able to attend happy hour, because I lived far from the office and it was hard for me to get home later at night. I would attend when there were special circumstances — like if a co-worker was leaving for another company, or if it was someone's birthday — but staying out for drinks on a regular basis just wasn't doable. My co-workers (even my boss!) would joke around about how I was never there, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I always felt left out around the office as a result. [See Related Story: Trouble Fitting In? 8 Ways to Make Friends at Work ]
It was unfair of my co-workers to guilt-trip me for not going to happy hour, just like it's unfair of your co-workers to do the same. Your co-workers are absolutely in the wrong for excluding you, but it might not be coming from a malicious place. It's more likely that they're misinterpreting your lack of attendance as a lack of desire to be a part of the team, which is obviously not the case. You're not wrong at all for not attending every single drink outing, but attending more often (or finding an alternative) could be a quick solution.
Since you're asking how to find a balance, I don't think doing so will be as hard as it may seem. It would be one thing if you didn't like or get along with your co-workers or had outside reasons preventing you from going, but it seems like that's not the kind of situation you're in. You say you don't mind going out sometimes and really like the people you work with, so I think it's worth it to make happy hour a regular part of your schedule. But you absolutely do not have to go out as often as your co-workers do.
If you can, make it a point to go to happy hour once a week; that way, your co-workers know you enjoy their company and that you want to be a part of the conversation. It sounds like the issue is less about you not going out every day and more about you not being a consistent part of the group after hours. Making regular appearances—even less often than the rest of the group — can give you that consistency without cutting too much into your schedule.
If you can't, or would prefer not to attend happy hours, there are still other ways you can bond with your co-workers and get involved in conversation outside of the office. Try asking others to go for walks to get coffee in the afternoon; this way, you can all get a quick break from the office and enjoy each other's company while you refuel for the rest of the work day. Or, if coffee's not your thing, you could invite your co-workers to have lunch with you. In any case, find ways to spend time with your co-workers, and they should start including you more.
This may not be a factor in your situation, but I also know how challenging being social can be when you're introverted or just not feeling up to it for any multitude of reasons. Even if you like the people you work with, forcing yourself to be social all the time when everyone but you seems to be having fun with ease can be stressful and hard to deal with. If that's the case, don't force yourself to go out when it doesn't feel right. Sure, challenging yourself and your limits can help you grow as a person, but don't make yourself uncomfortable, either. No matter what any of your co-workers say, you and your well-being come first.
You also have to keep in mind that you might do everything right, and still be excluded by your co-workers. In that case, it really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. If the issue gets worse and you feel like these exclusions may actually be hurting your career, talk to HR. If not, just keep on keeping on — do your best work and you'll excel with or without happy hour penciled in on your calendar.