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Success tip: Attend work-related social events

11 August 2012

A little while ago one of my mentees sent me a question by email.

“To advance your career, is it a good idea to attend social events at work? 

I stopped attending work social events a long time ago, but many people say it is good for your career to attend such event. So, a few weeks ago I attended one; which I did not enjoy much for obvious reasons so left at a decent time.”

Why attending work social events helps your career

There are very few careers which do not involve successful collaboration with other people. Even solo performers such as boxers need to collaborate with their coach, their manager, their staff etc. My own working career was spent in professional services, a field which is marked by fluid teams serving clients and also coming together for ad hoc projects.

It is impossible to work successfully on a continuing basis with people who are strangers. That applies both to people within your organisation and to people outside your organisation. For example as an accountant you may need to work alongside a solicitor from your client's law firm with whom you have never worked before. Quite apart from discussing the facts of your mutual client's case, as soon as you start dealing with that solicitor you will be evaluating what kind of person he or she is. To serve the client successfully you need to build up a relationship of trust and mutual respect with that solicitor. Obviously you also need a relationship of trust and mutual respect with your client.

This requirement for trust and mutual respect applies even more strongly to people within your organisation with whom you expect to be collaborating for many years.

Much of the relationship will be built up in the office and "on the job." If you demonstrate that you are hard-working, truthful, intelligent and reliable, your colleagues are more likely to trust and respect you than will be the case if you demonstrate the absence of these qualities.

However the time you spend together in the office is not enough to get to know the other person fully. I had clients with whom my continuing relationship lasted many years. On many occasions when we were having meetings in London or overseas cities, after the meeting we would have an informal dinner normally comprising two or three client personnel and two or three PricewaterhouseCoopers personnel. The conversation rarely covered work but instead would range over everything from current television programs, sport, history and our families. As a consequence the people present got to know each other much better and formed deep collaborative relationships. One of my clients even hosted me at a Seder at his home when I was in New York.

The other type of non-office event is a larger scale gathering such as the office Christmas party, a quiz night, tenpin bowling evening etc. Events such as this give you the opportunity to meet and converse with many people in your organisation, including people at the same level as yourself, your juniors and your superiors. In many cases this will be the first real engagement your superiors may have with you. It is your opportunity to demonstrate to them that you are a normal intelligent human being that they can collaborate with. If you do not attend, these relationships will not be created.

The critical reason why these informally created relationships matter relates to the allocation of work. In almost all organisations people in charge of projects have some level of choice regarding which junior people work on the project. (This is rarely complete discretion but organisations vary.) Above all else, the person in charge wants the project to go well. Accordingly if given a choice between Junior A who the superior has got to know at a social event and has some confidence in, and Junior X about whom the superior knows nothing, the superior is likely to choose Junior A.

If this process is repeated a few times, Junior X is likely to fall behind in progression as they will have worked on fewer projects, and possibly less demanding projects. Meanwhile Junior A will be learning from the projects undertaken and developing their skills and therefore progressing more rapidly. After a few years, Junior X may have fallen so far behind Junior A that Junior X decides to leave out of frustration at the lack of good experience and progression.

This unfortunate outcome has arisen because Junior X either did not attend the social events at which they could network with superiors, or they attended but failed to talk to people or gave a negative impression of themselves.

It may appear unfair that the career paths of these two individuals could diverge so dramatically as a result of their voluntary behaviour outside working hours. However this is the real world.

Social events and alcohol

Most people in British society enjoy drinking alcohol. Accordingly it is common for alcohol to be drunk at work related social events.

As a Muslim I do not drink alcohol. That was never an impediment to my attending social events as non-alcoholic drinks are always available.

I am aware that some Muslims regard it as a sin to be in the presence of other people who are drinking alcohol. Religious beliefs are always a matter between the individual and God and I do not give religious advice to other people. However Muslims who decide not to attend work-related events where alcohol is being drunk need to understand that they are placing a barrier in the way of their career progression.

This barrier need not be fatal to their progression but they will need to be that much better at their work. Such Muslims should also think innovatively about other ways in which they can engage in the networking that they are missing by absenting themselves from work-related social events. One example would be to invite groups of colleagues around to your home for dinner; since you are the host your guests will not expect alcohol to be served if you are a Muslim.


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