When the Office Happy Hour Isn't

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Who knew "happy hour" could be such a misnomer?

A young professional from Chicago wrote in during a recent online chat, saying that the big nonprofit group where he or she is employed often has large, long happy hours after work. "I'm not a big drinker, but there is often a lot of pressure to come with them, and people make comments if I duck out after only a couple of drinks," this person wrote. "Recently a co-worker talked to me about how people who don't go out after work get 'a reputation.' . . . How would you suggest I handle this?"

I said that maybe this young professional, one year out of college, should take heed and listen to the co-workers. Think of these happy hours as networking sessions. Meet new people, talk about goals, learn about a company. A mentor or two might emerge. Or a manager might remember how that young employee mentioned wanting to work on the next project at the last happy hour.

Meanwhile, you don't have to drink (welcome to the club-soda-and-lime club) or go to every happy hour, and you certainly don't need to stay until the wee hours. After all, who has the time or energy? But going might be good for a career.

There was a lot of negative reaction to this idea. One man wrote to me that he doesn't go to bars for religious reasons. Others were recovering alcoholics who didn't want to be (or couldn't be) in a bar. And many others simply had a life outside of work, with families they wanted to see.

But then another reader, who works for a large consulting firm, said he or she often gets to know other consultants at happy hours. "I talk to people about what they are working on and get to know them, so that way, when I'm looking for information, have a position to staff or learn of something that might interest someone else, I know who to reach out to," this person wrote. "I'm reluctant to staff people who never come to the events" because they don't see themselves as part of a team, the reader said.

Wow. Not part of the team because they don't go to the happy hours? To totally extinguish thoughts of hiring people because they aren't social is a bit hard-line.

But it's all about networking. Many of us hate the socializing and the schmoozing. But a lot of deals and contacts are made outside of work, which is why knowing someone is still the most common way to get a job. So learning to break out of your shell and attend a few of these events is important. For instance, people may consider us for another job because they see us in a different light. A boss might not have known what you're interested in before seeing you outside of work because she never has a spare moment to think about it.

And especially for a young college graduate, putting in those extra hours can really make a difference. And for those who can't do the bar thing, how about organizing a different place to meet? A breakfast happy hour before work? A sushi happy hour (others can still drink while you nosh) after work?

Chicago came around: "Thanks for all of your advice. The happy hours are usually to celebrate someone's going away or arrival, or to get together and complain about work, and that's when there's usually a lot of pressure to drink (and drink and drink), which makes me uncomfortable. It isn't the kind of organization that uses happy hours to talk about strategic plans or anything like that. Nevertheless, you've given me some good reasons to think about showing up more often. Thank you again!"

Good luck, Chicago. Even at going-away parties, you can make a good impression. Work it.

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