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Avoid getting grilled at your office picnic

Office picnics can be fun - or they can be downright painful. (Thinkstock)

Office picnics can be fun - or they can be downright painful. (Thinkstock)

Editor's Note: Office picnic season is here. Will your colleagues tell stories about you at next year's workplace outing? To avoid that fate, we've brought back this story on workplace etiquette in the great outdoors.

Alex Abrams has always been competitive and ambitious. That’s how the then first-year associate found herself in front of a large bowl of hot dogs and baked beans at her New York law firm’s annual July barbeque. Her boss had asked her to participate in the hot dog eating contest.

“Of course, I had to win,” said Abrams, now 33-years old.

Abrams closed her eyes, slathered the first dog in ketchup, and downed it. She kept going. She was concentrating so hard on the task at hand that she missed the signal the contest was over. Eventually Abrams looked up to find her new colleagues watching in awe. She’d eaten 21 sausages — three times more than anyone else — in just under 12 minutes. 

“Eight years later, certain partners still only know me as ‘Franks,’” Abrams said.

Ah, the company summer outing. While there is some evidence that company picnics are a growing phenomenon in the United Kingdom, they are primarily a US tradition. The recession brought some cutbacks to such gatherings, but surveys in recent years suggest that office mates will once again find themselves together for company softball games, picnics or corporate beach parties.  About 55% of American companies had a company picnic, according to a 2012 Society of Human Resources survey.

Outside of the United States, summer outings are not as common, although spending some free time with managers is widespread in other cultures. In Japan, for instance, socializing with the boss at a karaoke bar or other nightspots after business hours is often required. 

In the US, bosses often see out-of-office summer outings as a chance to bond as team, to boost morale and to reward hard work. For employees, however, it’s not so simple. While having fun with colleagues and their families, workers must be careful to not have so much fun that those same people are whispering about you at the office for months afterward.  

Many employees loath the tradition, saying they have no interest in socializing with co-workers during precious free time.

Other problems can arise when colleagues meet outside their usual environment.   To dispel social awkwardness, some find themselves drinking too much.  Employees lose the ability to rein in their own inappropriate behaviour when drinking at events like company picnics, showed a 2011 study conducted by the University of Birmingham in England.

Recent research suggests that the events are not as successful at teambuilding as some bosses would like to believe. While social events allow homogenous teams to build bonds, that same benefit didn’t arise in more diverse workplaces, according to a paper published in the Maryland-based journal Organizational Science in February.

“Rather than bringing workers together, these activities can underscore differences,” said the paper’s co-author Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Still, it’s important to remember that office outings can be valuable networking opportunities. The best approach going in? Think of them as work.

“Your boss will be there, maybe your boss’s boss,” said Karen Burns, a careers blogger based in Seattle and author of the book Working Girl. “Which, sadly, makes it not a party but a business function.”

Here are a few tips on how to survive your company’s summer gathering:

Graciously attend.  Even if you dread such events, it’s important to show up. Management is throwing the party to thank employees, and to miss it is bad form, said Sue Fox, author of the book Business Etiquette for Dummies. “You don’t want to be known for never attending,” Fox said. 

Don’t stand out.  You will be scrutinised if you drink too much alcohol, make off-colour remarks, behave in a manner that wouldn't fit in your workplace or dress inappropriately (casual-Friday attire is usually safe, as is a modest swimsuit if there is a call for such attire). Don’t forget that any faux pas may end up being posted on social media. And, perhaps most importantly, even if you end up drinking a bit too much or saying something you regret, you must show up at work the next day or people will surely be talking.

Prep your guests. Most companies encourage employees to bring both partners and children to picnics. It’s important to discuss appropriate behaviour beforehand.

“Imagine it’s your kid that jumps so aggressively in the bouncy castle, it pops,” said Cathy Johnson, a Houston, Texas-based caterer with several corporate clients. Worse yet, what if your spouse takes this opportunity to complain about your long hours at the office? Make sure family members know what is off limits.

Mingle. It’s easy to stick with your closest colleagues, but make an effort to expand your office network, including getting to know the higher-ups. Still, Fox warned, “Remember it is a picnic, not a job interview and not everyone will want to talk shop.”

Play ball. Joining in games or other contests allows you be viewed as a team player. Play your best, but, Fox noted, play fair and be a good sport. It’s okay to admit you don’t know the rules or have never played before.

That’s a lesson Abrams learned the hard way. “I’m Jewish, don’t eat pork, had never had a hot dog before that day,” she said. Twenty-one hot dogs later, she fell ill and had to be driven home — by her boss. 

“He seemed less than impressed,” she said.  

Rather than bringing workers together, these activities can underscore differences. — Nancy Rothbard