Amy Joyce
Life at Work

Antisocial Anxiety

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005

Does an order from your boss to go out and have a martini with co-workers sound like a dream to you?

For those who have been pulled aside by a supervisor or told in an annual review that they need to socialize more with their peers, it's more like a nightmare.

And yes, for reasons that could be seen as right or wrong, the demand is not so uncommon. It's a demand that Laura Whalen, who never thought of herself as anti-social or unapproachable, still resents a year later.

At an impromptu review when she worked in sales and marketing at a large Chantilly auto company, she was told that the fact she wasn't social with people in the office would hurt her career. "I was so stunned," she said. "I was thinking: 'I'm good at my job and I don't like these people very much. Do I have to go to lunch with them every day?' "

Sometimes, yes. "Socialization has everything to do with influence," said Leslie Williams, an executive coach in the District. "It's not enough to just be good at your job. Part of what your job is is to not only to do a good job, but be somebody that people know and know well enough to trust."

"Technically, they could be doing good work. But cohesiveness is important for a department to run effectively," said Rod Fralicx, global head of employee research with Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

However, if there is not a clear case for why socializing is relevant to the job, then the request is not going to make any sense. And in that case, shame on the manager. And of course, many of those who would rather keep their heads down, work quietly and leave the office as soon as it is time to scat say they never received such an explanation. Including Whalen.

"I was rated the top performer in my peer group three times in seven months," she said. She said clients call her supervisor to rave about her. And a former life as a resident assistant at her university, along with a host of friends, only supported her belief that she was far from antisocial. Her theory was that because the supervisors who demanded she socialize more were part of what she deemed the "in" group at work, "they felt like anyone who didn't want to be a part of it had to be antisocial."

Whalen stayed at the job six more months -- until she got married and moved away. She knew she was leaving when she received the warning, so she barely bothered to go out of her way to change, she said. Maybe she took in another lunch or two with co-workers, but she did not make much of an effort. "It's not that I was trying to be difficult or an outcast or anything. I just did my own thing."

Some who have been told to be more outgoing have made the effort to get out of the comfy cubicle and chat. Jennifer Hurley is one of those. When she was an administrative assistant for a large investment bank in New York, she was given a review five months after she arrived. "I am fairly quiet and shy -- not painfully so, but it does take me a while to warm up to people," she said. And the office where she had recently started to work was "pretty rambunctious," with many happy hours, parties and general gatherings.

Hurley was on the young side -- her late twenties, like many of the people there -- making others think she should want to hang out, too. But she was new to the city and recently married, so she had a lot going on outside of work.

It came as a surprise to her when her manager said that she was doing a great job but that she should be more social and interact more with the assistants and bankers. The reason wasn't explained to her, which is what stymies so many of those people who are told they are missing a social gene.

"I think in my case, I was new and I stood out because I was not very social," she said. So she tried, though sometimes it was difficult. She would make more of an effort in the morning to walk around the part of the office where many of the other admins sat to chat for a few minutes. But many times, she found herself standing in a group, not saying a word, and not really a part of the conversation. "I just stayed there to feel like I was socializing," she said. "Sort of awkward."

But by the end of the two years, she had become very integrated in the group and social outings. And when she did leave her job for something else, it wasn't for the social reasons, she said. "By the end of the two years, I was very comfortable."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. E-mail her with your ideas for a column atlifeatwork@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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