Employment Guide: Office etiquette stands when out with boss

By Emma Kilcup

Most college students are firm believers of the mantra “work hard, play hard.” But it’s… Most college students are firm believers of the mantra “work hard, play hard.” But it’s easy to go too hard when it comes to “playing” — i.e., partying — with the boss.

Colleagues often go out together during happy hour. But those navigating the career world for the first time may face some difficulty drawing the lines when business meets pleasure.

The Coro Center for Civic Leadership focuses on producing leaders and  often organizes happy hours at local bars and restaurants. Misti McKeehen, the director of operations and outreach for the Pittsburgh branch, said that the event mainly focuses on networking and professionalism. These types of gatherings often include young professionals interning at the Coro Center.

“In a culture that accepts social activities, I always encourage employees and interns to ‘use their heads,’” McKeehen said in an email. “While you may be interacting in a social setting, your colleagues always need to continue to be treated as if you were in a professional setting. If something doesn’t ‘fly’ in the office … it should never enter a social setting.”

McKeehen explained that employees should follow the boss’s lead — if the boss is a good example. She outlines some rules: “Don’t go ‘over the top’ (drinking, eating, language, personal stories). Keep it all within reason. Don’t engage in office gossip — it’s not appropriate in any setting. Don’t assume that a happy hour or social outing means that professionalism doesn’t apply.”

Donna Gerson, the former director of career services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law from 1993 until 2001, counseled students and worked with off-campus recruiting. She is now a full-time speaker and writer. One of her books, “Modern Rules of Business Etiquette,” outlines the rules for remaining professional and respected at work.

“Business socializing has always helped team building,” Gerson said. “Of course you want to be respected, but you also want to have fun with colleagues. For many, work is like a second home. Socializing helps build relationships of trust.”

Running an errand with a boss or grabbing lunch with co-workers is expected by most employees, but cocktail hour can throw a new curveball. “No shots” and “no passing out” replace the simple dining etiquette of “no elbows on the table” or “no chewing with your mouth open.”

“Alcohol is a fabulous social lubricant. It lowers inhibitions, so carefully monitor alcohol intake and do not overshare,” Gerson said. “Have one beer, maybe two beers in the span of two hours. Don’t engage in the drinking culture; you want to stay in control.”

Gerson suggests minimizing alcohol intake and not forgoing etiquette, but she has one ultimate piece of advice:

“Think,” Gerson said. “You have to be aware of the repercussions of your actions. Don’t overshare. We live in an oversharing world but you have to think about what you say before you share it.”

Though the guidelines seem predictable, the switch from college life to real life can be daunting, with many students using Facebook and other networking sites to broadcast weekend activities. Gerson said that everyone makes mistakes, but employees and job seekers now need to be aware of the public image portrayed through the social networking sites.

“What I come to expect is that each intern will be themselves, will converse to their level of comfort, and in some cases remain very private,” McKeehen said. “That is okay. It is when the opposite extreme is met that a conversation has to occur to perform corrective actions.”

Gerson said it was a sign of the times.

“Older generations may have been doing keg stands on the weekends but there weren’t pictures of them doing this on Facebook. Now, weekend activities are all over social networking sites. It’s just not professional.”

While it can be hard to grasp the limits of social drinking with superiors, there are rules at universities that parallel the rules of job etiquette. Resident assistants are not permitted to have a beer keg available to students in the hallway. Teaching assistants do not suggest the class go out for martinis. Professors are not encouraged to hand out jagerbombs to break the ice during the first week of class.

“There are definitely boundaries and distinct rules with a lot of jobs,” Pitt alumna Molly Kane said. “I TA classes, and I know that it’s against the rules to go out with students.”

Kane, who graduated in 2011 as a geology and environmental science major, attends the University of Oklahoma where she now plays the role of a superior to students as a TA. Kane explains that socializing can help create openness and help students feel less afraid to ask questions but acknowledges the distinct boundaries.

For the under-21 crowd, the boundaries extend even further, and etiquette can only do so much. Since many college students are still waiting for the ability to enter a bar, those who intern or work with colleagues of drinking age must say ‘no’ to happy-hour bonding. Fortunately, there are plenty of situations that do not involve drinking where students can get to know their colleagues.

“Social interaction happens as you sit in the lunch room, as you are volunteering at a local event, as new colleagues come and go,” McKeehen said in an email. “We tend to do potluck lunches, ask about each others’ weekends, and always do a personal check-in at the beginning of each staff meeting.”

Employers and employees alike can agree on the simple rule that the office is a professional place and if that the office branches out to other venues, the same rules of conduct should apply.