Sunday, September 06, 2009


Twice this year an Ohio reader's company has decided to throw a wedding or baby shower in the middle of a business meeting at the company's main office. My reader works remotely for this small company, but was required to attend these meetings.

"Quite a few of us were vocal about not wanting to participate in the showers," she writes, "mostly because we don't even know these people, except for seeing them at an annual meeting."

The company's manager told them that they didn't have to participate, and gave them permission to leave during the showers and return when the fun was over and work resumed.

"Of course," she adds, "we were told that we were still expected to contribute to the shower gifts."

My reader and some of her colleagues believe that, if others want to host a shower for a colleague, it should not be on company time and attendance should not be mandatory. She worries that, as more young women become engaged or pregnant, more and more showers will be planned for company time.

"We are told we are not `team players' when we don't want to participate," she writes, adding that, if she takes a strong stance on the matter, her image as a team player stands to get even worse.

"What is the right thing to do when my company arranges wedding and baby showers in the middle of a business meeting?" she asks. "Are we wrong in not wanting to be a part of this?"

To answer the second question first, there's no right or wrong about wanting to be part of such celebrations. We feel the way we feel. Ethics doesn't tell us how to feel, only what to do about those feelings.

Going back to the first question, there's nothing wrong with having a wedding or baby shower on company time. Obviously the company feels that, in the interest of employee morale, this is a worthwhile use of the company's time. If management is happy with the practice, as apparently it is, it's fine.

The sticking point, obviously, is the idea of mandatory participation, particularly when there's a cost involved. An employee celebration of a private milestone isn't the same as an organized work session, and for those who don't feel comfortable participating _ because, as in my reader's case, they don't know the honoree or for any other reason _ discreetly opting out should be an option.

Whatever benefits the showers may have for employee morale are at least partially offset if some of those present resent being there and/or feel that they've been forced to contribute to a gift they wouldn't otherwise support.

To require any employee to donate to a group gift is plain wrong. If the company believes that it's good for morale or otherwise important for a shower recipient to get a gift on such an occasion, let the company pay for it.

And the company should consider scheduling these showers as voluntary events, scheduled after work or at least outside of official meetings. Not as many people may attend, but the honoree won't miss a few strangers - and, after all, what does it say about you anyway if people have to be forced to attend your party?

Unfortunately it wasn't company management that wrote to me for advice. My reader isn't in a position to personally change the policy, so her situation is different.

She and like-minded employees should sit down with the appropriate manager, explain the issues I've outlined above and request that the company change its employee-party policy to be more friendly to all the employees, especially those who aren't usually in the office and don't know most of the other employees.

This may inspire a change, or it may not. If it doesn't, my reader has every right to politely decline to contribute to a gift - "I'm sorry, but I don't really know her" - and then to step out of the room as the celebration begins, as her manager suggests. It would be wrong to refuse to ante up and then stay for the festivities.

If this won't fly with management, she'll have to literally grin and bear it, making the best of a party she'd rather not be at and writing off an occasional shower-gift contribution as part of the cost of doing business with this company.

I hope it won't come to that, though. "Mandatory gift" and "compulsory celebration" are both contradictions in terms, and a smart manager wouldn't mind letting her sit out the party on her own terms.¶

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


M. Lawrence said...

I mostly agree with Jeff, but I would draw a harder line. No one has the right to extort money from anyone - expecially for a gift for a person you barely know - with the implied threat that your working situation will be at risk if you don't. If someone told me I "wasn't a team player" I'd say "thank you." There's a very fine line (if any) between "team player" and groupthink. Where I work, they like to pretend that we're "family." It doesn't fool anyone and just adds another layer of pretence to what should be amicable professional relations. Maybe I should ask my administrator if I can borrow his car for the weekend - hey, we're family, right?

granny bee said...

Thirty-odd years ago, my office mates surprised me with a very modest but appreciated shower gift: They'd chipped in a few bucks each and got a set of towels. Somebody brought cookies, and somebody else had brought apple juice and cups. We celebrated at the 10 am break.It was very low-key and inexpensive, but thoughtful.

A few years later, I passed the idea on. In an office of ten living-on-a-shoestring university teaching assistants, I let people know that, since one of our office mates was a new dad, would anybody want to contribute a dollar or two or three to a baby gift. Eight people in the office felt they knew him well enough to do so. My friend, who knew more about babies than I did at the time, helped me shop. I gave each of the co workers a photocopied sheet with an itemized list of small gifts purchased. Since everybody was in and out of the office all day, making a formal presentation was impossible. I wrapped the gifts in a tower of packages and put it on his desk. He loved it, and gave everybody thank you notes.

These were spontaneous gifts, not forced, and at a scale that people could afford. It meant a lot to the recipient, and nobody felt pressured. The larger the scale of the operation, the more pressure people feel; and the more bad feeling it creates.