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Meet up after work? No thanks, say many U.S. officemates

Friendships outside the office build teamwork and boost job security. But pitfalls can include gossip and alcohol.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2008

In the fall of 2006 Sharon Howell of San Francisco spotted a sign for Trivia Night at a local pub. The idea sounded appealing, so she e-mailed her co-workers at a public-relations firm, inviting them to go with her. As a relatively new employee, she did not know any of them well.

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"Three other people from the office thought it would be fun, so we all went together," says Ms. Howell, a senior account executive for Lewis Global Public Relations. Today, 18 months later, the original foursome still attends every week, and others have joined them.

Americans are less likely than those in other parts of the world to socialize with their fellow employees beyond the workplace, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. They found that only 30 percent of employees have a close confidant at work, down from nearly half in 1985.

"Compared to counterparts in other countries, US co-workers are less likely to extend professional ties into a variety of settings beyond the workplace, even though factors that typically constrain social interaction with co-workers after hours – marriage, kids, time spent working – have remained constant or weakened," says researcher Aleksandra Kacperczyk.

Yet when Americans do socialize after work, they derive positive emotional energy from the experience, the study shows. Similarly, a survey by Accountemps finds that 57 percent of executives and nearly two-thirds of workers think office productivity improves when colleagues are friends outside the office.

Some after-hours gatherings have a specific purpose, such as celebrating a birthday, a promotion, or an engagement. Others simply offer an excuse to kick back, relax, and savor the end of a busy workday or workweek.

Family obligations prevent many people from taking part in after-hours gatherings. Other workers simply prefer to keep business and pleasure separate.

"Other than the odd lunch, I avoid these sorts of get-togethers," says Brian Olson, a vice president at Video Professor, Inc., in Lakewood, Colo. "I work with a terrific group of people each day, but I have another life outside work with my family. It's a good balance, and a safe one."

Although Mr. Olson enjoys company-sponsored activities, he warns that after-hours functions pose potential hazards. "A lot of out-of-office events involve alcohol. Need we say more?"

Still, he acknowledges that many get-togethers can be a good way to meet friends and bring different levels of the company together.

Socializing – or not – depends on the culture of a particular office, says Thom Singer, author of two books on the power of business relationships. "If people in your office do [socialize] and you choose not to, you can send a negative message that you don't want to play with others." Avoiding co-workers outside the office, he cautions, can be a "career-limiting" policy, while mingling socially can help pave the way to promotions and other opportunities. "People who are connected inside tend to have more job security," he adds.

Even so, mixing business with pleasure requires workers to set personal boundaries.