Abusing Altruism: When employees take advantage of a good deed

by epi on March 6, 2012

Q: I own a small business.  During the holiday season every year, I invite my employees to lunch at a restaurant.  In the past, I’ve let everyone go home early (with pay) afterward.  For several years now, a few people have skipped the lunch and gone straight home.  This has caused some ill will among the other employees.  One option is to have everybody go back to work afterward, or skip the lunch altogether.  Any advice?

A: Gee — and all you’re trying to do is be a good guy.  Unfortunately, your mistake was in letting the situation continue unresolved for several years.  At this point, I like the option of telling everyone they’re expected to return to work after lunch.  This uncouples the meal from the afternoon off.  The focus now returns to the real benefit — the luncheon — and ensures that those who skip int don’t gain anything for their rudeness.  If you want to avoid penalizing anyone by taking away their afternoon off, randomly announce it on another day.  Then there isn’t any opportunity for animosity.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

polite punk March 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

For the most part, I completely agree with EP. But, my one question is to just check to make sure the reason people aren’t skipping lunch isn’t due to where the lunch is. At a previous job, the president always scheduled the holiday lunch at a steakhouse. In theory, this is great, except for when there are several vegetarian employees who were left with pretty much nothing to eat. I would make sure that you take into consideration people’s dietary concerns. But other than that, headed back to work afterwards sounds like the best option.

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Country Girl March 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Good thought on taking everyone’s dietary restrictions into consideration Polite Punk.

If employee ill will is this boss’ main concerned, I doubt very highly that making everyone return to work because of these party-poopers would make that situation better. On the contrary, it will most likely cause even more ill will and a huge drop in morale.

I have to say there are a few things I don’t understand A) Why there is any ill will with anyone in the first place? The employees who show up get a free meal and some fun holiday socializing, the ones who go home early simply miss out on that. And B) Why are the only options being considered to force everyone back to work or skip the lunch all together? Perhaps a better option for you would be to add some fun incentive for attending, such as a contest for a Christmas gift. You might coax some of the party poopers to come, and those who already come will be rewarded even more.

Anyone who complains or has ill will from this fun event is quite simply a whiner, and unfortunately what you are suggesting is letting the whiners ruin this fun tradition for everyone else. Please don’t be that boss.

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polite punk March 7, 2012 at 1:13 am

Good call on the incentive, CG!

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Jerry March 6, 2012 at 9:12 pm

So let me get this right: You’re offering your employees lunch and then the afternoon off, but some employees want to skip the lunch and spend time with their friends and/or family rather than spend it with their boss and colleagues? And people are surprised/upset by this, why? I have a really hard time believing that other rank-and-file employees would care that their co-workers would miss an office lunch. Rather, this sounds like an episode of The Office — Michael Scott wanting people to be his friend so he takes them out to lunch and then gives them the day off expecting that they will choose to spend that free time with him. And then he gets upset when his colleagues don’t actually want to spend time with him!

It’s tough to get rid of a perk that people have come to expect (i.e., a half a day off of work around Christmas.) EPI got this answer wrong. Want to keep morale high (essential in running a profitable business)? Tell people that there will be an office lunch/party, that no one is expected to attend the lunch/office party, and that everyone will have the rest of the afternoon off. Let people spend time with their friends/family rather than force them to spend time with their co-workers. Isn’t spending time with friends and family what Christmas is all about?

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Ashleigh March 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I think the employer has every right to be annoyed in this situation. The boss is saying “I value your contributions to this team and would like to reward you with a nice afternoon during the holidays.” The employee is saying “Sayonara sucker!!!” There are plenty of companies that do not give their employees any sort of half day anything during the holiday season so if your employer is kind enough to do so, you shouldn’t take advantage of them! I understand wanting to spend time with family and friends, but if this is a workday a) your family and friends shouldn’t be expecting you there as you should be in work b) they might be at work as well. Spending an hour or two at lunch is not going to kill these employees (unless of course they’re allergic to shellfish at a seafood restaurant) and the boss will not feel as though everyone is walking all over him/her. These employees are downright rude.

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Nina March 7, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I agree that the luncheon really isn’t optional. Anything the boss asks me to do during a workday, even if it’s fun, I do it–they’re paying me to do what they say, after all. But I don’t think one can really police this one too effectively. Maybe if there was an RSVP requested, and then you could follow up with people who RSVP no–tell them they need to book a vacation day if they choose not to participate in the activity you’ve selected.

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Mike March 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm

I agree with Jerry. I want to add that the boss is getting a financial break by not having to buy a lunch for those who skip out. Come on – who wants more time with the boss when there’s holiday shopping to be done? Another alternative: skip the luncheon entirely in the future, and give all the employees what they’d prefer – time home; giving a cash bonus of what the average meal cost was of $20-$70, whatever is usually spent, to each employee would be an added plus. The employees do NOT want to spend more time with you, Bossy, other than at the work site.

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polite punk March 8, 2012 at 12:03 am

I disagree. I regularly look forward to office lunches and work happy hours and enjoy spending time with my co-workers and my boss. I’m not sure why this is so hard for some people to understand.

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Jerry March 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm

polite punk: The song isn’t about you.

Unless the point of your post was to argue that it is appropriate to assume everyone enjoys spending time with their co-workers and boss because you enjoy spending time with your co-workers and your boss. Not even I am that vain.

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Just Laura March 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm

I think polite punk was politely trying to add that most people do, in fact, enjoy the company of their bosses/coworkers. Certainly I won’t work somewhere where I dislike them (I was invited to family get-togethers w/previous bosses, and I’ll be in my current boss’ wedding tomorrow). I mean, we are forced to see these people over 40 hrs/wk – might as well like ‘em! I realize that the whole working-world isn’t made of up unicorns and rainbows, but really? The employees couldn’t stand to put up with their coworkers for a 45 min lunch before heading home (on a day when they should be at work anyway)? I could put up with a lot of insufferable people for free lunch and a paid 1/2 day off.

Jerry March 8, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Perhaps her point was too subtle. In any case, you can’t really make the claim that “most people . . . enjoy the company of their bosses/co-workers.” It’s probably more accurate to say that most people don’t mind the company of their bosses/co-workers. But when I’m throwing a party, (most of) my colleagues are not on the guest list. Not because I dislike them; I just don’t particularly feel like hanging out with them outside of work.

While you’re right that while employees can stand a :45 minute lunch (or even a two hour lunch) before heading home, no one should be surprised that some people might not want to participate in an event that’s a non-core work function. In fact, I’ve actually passed up work social events to bill a few more hours or just go home and see my wife and cat. Unless it’s a working lunch/dinner, it is just not rude to not eat with your co-workers.

I reiterate my position that the business owner (and any busy body co-workers) should just grin and bear it, ignore the fact that not everyone will want to hang out together, and enjoy themselves without those who would rather not participate in an activity that is largely social.

(Best wishes to your boss.)

Jody March 7, 2012 at 7:29 am

I think Jerry got this one wrong. OP, what you’re doing is very generous; I see two possible solutions.

One would be to have the luncheon and the “afternoon off” on different days. Attendance at the lunch would not be mandatory, but nobody would get to leave work early. The afternoon off would be on another day, when everybody got to leave early.

If separating the lunch from the afternoon off isn’t practical, maybe you could move the lunch to a late afternoon/end-of-workday event (not a full dinner, though). Those that want to attend the party will, and those who merely want to leave early will. Everybody ends up with the same time off.

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Jerry March 7, 2012 at 8:32 pm

It just would not be a post if you didn’t challenge me, Jody. :-)

As you know, etiquette is not really about what you can do. It’s about what you should do. As some posters have pointed out, the boss can require anyone and everyone of his employees to attend the lunch. Employers do this all the time: they’re called retreats. “Mandatory fun,” though, defeats morale and is counter to the stated purposes of thanking and showing appreciation to employees. Want to really show appreciation — say thank you and give me a bonus (i.e., let me get directly to the portion of the event where you give me half a day off with pay). Don’t ask me hang out with you at a non-core function (i.e., a function that doesn’t bring money into the office) when I may not particularly like you and/or my co-workers!

Jody: I sincerely appreciate your willingness to articulate extreme positions and serve as a foil for me. You’re right that (i) the original poster is very generous, and (ii) the original poster is under no obligation to offer any extra benefit to his employees around Christmas. The free enterprise system is truly a wonderful thing. However, the original poster would not be wise to eliminate or modify a tradition where he gives people a half-day off work (i.e., a small expense) because he’s mad that some employees would rather go home than engage in the non-core job function of socializing with him at lunch.

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Alicia March 8, 2012 at 11:38 am

I think the best option is not to announce that the day is free after lunch. Instead make everyone think they are returning to work after lunch and only at lunch announce that they may leave after lunch with pay.
This is a work lunch and as such one of the goals is to get together and casually build relationships that result in a better work enviroment. It is like a meeting with food. So basically make it clear that the lunch is required and that those who do not attend do not have the alternative of going home. You can attend the lunch or you can work you can not have a free day. Only those who attend the lunch get the afternoon post lunch off.

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lisa March 9, 2012 at 12:15 am

I think the employer needs to decide if this is a gift or not. If it is meant as a gift, it seems to me that when we give a gift we have to let it go and let whoever received the gift do what they will with it. Sometimes gifts are not received the way we would hope and it is disappointing, but a real gift has no strings attached and there is a certain amount peace that comes from giving and being able to let go, with the knowledge that we did our best to do something kind. There could be many reasons people go home early. Perhaps they work long hours and cherish the time they get with their families or close friends. Although they may be grateful to their employer and really enjoy their coworkers, they probably spend at least 20 to 40 hours a week with them. If they have a family it is their family is who misses them most when they are gone and who really needs them the most and yet probably has the least time with them. They may be very grateful for the gift of time you have given them to spend with those who love them most. Maybe they are really needed at home especially at such a busy time of year. Maybe it is the selection of food as previously stated, or perhaps they don’t feel well or maybe they don’t feel valued. Maybe they live for weekends and holiday:) Many reasons could effect it. If you think the meal is important to build good feelings among your team, as stated above an incentive or separate days for the lunch and the day off seems like a good alternative, to me. I think I would also ask for an RSVP so you can plan well and aren’t left in a lurch.
I have to wonder if there is more to this story. It doesn’t make sense to me that other people would have ill feelings because others didn’t show up unless there is more going on. It is one thing to be disappointed it is another to have ill will.
I wish you all the best in working things out.

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