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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Socializing With the Boss Can Open Career Doors

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page F06

High on Bill Perry's mental list of things to do this year is to play golf with his company's chief executive. He has his clubs ready to go at the first call. Perry's father-in-law advised him not to talk about work until at least the fifth hole. And so what if he's not great at the game? He knows spending those few hours one-on-one with his boss is critical to his career.

Perry works for Pathlore Software Corp. of Columbus, Ohio. Chief executive Steve Thomas thinks social time with a supervisor is imperative to a good working relationship. Thomas spends time outside of the office playing golf with employees. He goes out to dinner with them, or sometimes he will sponsor a night at a hockey game or other sporting event for his workers. Last week, he was preparing for a trip to Cancun with a sales team and their spouses.

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"You have to be able to go to people quickly and be able to deal with them to get a job or contract done. It's a lot easier if you really know the person," he said. "Are there liabilities to getting to know employees, and are there employees who don't know their bosses? Yes. But [socializing] breaks down lot of barriers . . . and it lets everyone know that bosses are real people, too."

Apparently, a lot of people agree with him. According to a recent survey, 55 percent of the respondents said they knew it was good for their career to socialize with the boss. But 27 percent said it was a necessity they would rather live without.

Spending a few hours with the boss outside of the cubicle environment is getting more and more common, said Marc Cenedella, president of TheLadders.com, the executive job search service that performed the survey. That is particularly because we mix life and work much more today than we used to. "It's difficult to solely have a 9-to-5 relationship with the boss," he said. "We have let a lot of our socializing and free and family time get mixed up with our work time. It's difficult to draw a line where a boss remains a boss or becomes a friend."

Not that Cenedella is complaining. His 40-person company does a lot of socializing, and he joins right in. "It's fun to see people in another setting and to relax and be able to socialize outside the conference rooms," Cenedella said. "It makes it a lot easier to get over the hard hurdles and difficult bumps that occur."

Many companies have social events so employees and employers can get to know one another and, presumably, work together better.

La Quinta Inns Inc. has a "highly social environment," according to Christina Parr, director of training and development. That includes softball and volleyball teams, a holiday luncheon and group volunteering. It's a great way to "get beyond the walls and stimulate thinking," she said.

But it is a little different from a one-on-one tennis match with a supervisor, and maybe that one-on-one time isn't always necessary, said Noel Ferguson, vice president of human resources at La Quinta and Parr's boss. "It's not as necessary if the right conversations are being had in the office," he said. "We try to make it easy to have the conversations here."

That is also Joseph Seitz's take on socializing after work with a supervisor. He was in a marketing job after college and thinks that if he had taken up golf or tried to go to dinner with the boss, he might have moved up more quickly. But that is just not his thing, he said.

Now, as director of the office of training and development for the Maryland Transit Administration, and boss of 35 people, he wants to keep his after-work hours for his family. He hopes his employees do the same. "I think that my job is to make the workplace -- since we spend more time at work than anywhere else -- to make the employees want to come to work," he said. "And they should feel comfortable enough with me that when they are off, they can spend more time with their families."

Not everyone has been bitten with the social bug. And many, even those who are social outside of work, would really rather not spend that extra time with the very boss they report to all day. "People feel pressure in this competitive, shaky world to keep themselves positioned for career success," said Douglas LaBier, a psychologist and psychotherapist with the D.C.-based Center for Adult Development. "That requires actions that don't mesh well with personal behaviors and desires."

And so what does one do when boss-mingling sounds like torture? Think of it as just what it is: career advancement.

"I think it's important to see that social events are work events, and it is important if someone wants to have better relations at work, as well as maybe be on track for a promotion, to be involved with those social events," said Michael Stadter, a clinical psychologist and associate with BMC Associates, an Arlington-based consulting and mediation company. "But the bottom line is you don't see them as social events. You look at them as work events."

If a worker detests the thought of spending time outside of work with a boss, it may be time for a change of mind-set, Stadter said. "Work goes on at these events," he said. "It doesn't mean you have to be the boss's friend . . . but if it seems to be important to your company or business, think of it as a business meeting."

Join Amy Joyce at 11 a.m. Tuesday to discuss your life at work at washingtonpost.com. E-mail her at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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