Q: I really don't want to socialize with co-workers during lunch or after work for happy hours. It's nothing personal. I just have two young kids and a needy husband whom I'd rather spend my free time with. How do I avoid coming across like I don't want to be part of the team?
A: When confronted with an undesirable invitation to an after-work function, my go-to response is, "No, thanks. I've had more than enough of you people."
I'm not well-liked.
For more reasonable folks, however, there is a general sense that, if invited, you need to hang out with co-workers. You want to be seen as a team player, a cool colleague, even if you'd much rather be home spending time with your family or, possibly, your couch.
But socializing outside the office might not be as important as people think.
Kerry Patterson, an expert in organizational behavior and co-author of the book "Crucial Conversations," said he has seen time and again that people value a colleague who is helpful in the workplace far more than one who is social after hours.
"As you get into careers, you find the more important element of being social is stepping up to friends and colleagues at work and pitching in when things are busy and people need help the most," Patterson said. "If you're sitting around at work and you're constantly looking at where you can help, people value that way more than someone they can go drinking with."
That doesn't mean that there isn't a need to spend some time socializing with co-workers — the better you know the people you work with, the easier it is to interact. But if you don't want to impinge on your nonwork life, find social opportunities during work hours.
"I had to learn how to say, 'I'd love to get to know you and spend more time together; maybe we can get lunch or meet on a break sometime,'" Patterson said. "And then you need to actually do it. You need to follow through. You need to maximize those social interactions during the working hours."
For bosses who like to schedule social events outside of work — weekend picnics and other forms of corporate torture — Patterson suggests having some open dialogue with employees about what kind of event might appeal to people:
"You say, 'I think it might be helpful if we could spend some casual time together, and I'd actually like to do it outside of work hours. What would work for you all and would fit the best with your family life? Is there a way we can do it?'"
And then, hopefully, the boss takes everyone on staff out for a game of paintball. Because if we have to socialize with co-workers, we should at least be able to pelt them with hard objects at the same time.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.