Sunday, October 29, 2017

The boss should buy his own drinks

When E.W. was promoted to manager of his division, he was thrilled. He loved his work and had a lot of respect for people who worked alongside him, some of whom he had worked with for more than a decade.

Several members of his division would regularly meet outside of work to socialize, whether for a meal at a nearby restaurant or a cookout in one of their backyards. E.W. hoped that his camaraderie with the group wouldn't change now that he "would effectively be their boss."

It's one thing after all to work alongside someone, quite different to take your marching orders from that person and be beholden to him or her for performance evaluations that could lead to promotions and salary raises. Still, E.W. was committed to fulfilling the duties of his new role and simultaneously show leadership while also maintaining the collegial tone they had all exhibited to get the work done.

Several months into his new job, E.W. was pleased that a bunch of the workers he now managed invited him to a favorite bar and grill for drinks and food after work. E.W thought it was a great sign that they felt comfortable enough to still invite him out to socialize with them even now that he was their boss.

When he arrived, a few other workers from his division were already there, so he wandered over to the tables they had commandeered. A big "hey" welcomed him and E.W. sensed all was good with his relationship.

It was then that one of the team stood up, put his arm around E.W.'s shoulder, and started walking him toward the bar.

"Let me buy you a beer," he said to E.W.

In the old days, before he was their boss, E.W. might have been fine with this. But in the old days, none of them had ever gone out of their way to buy him a beer. Their ritual was that they'd run a tab on food and drinks and divide it evenly among them at the end of the night.

Now, however, E.W. was their boss and he wasn't comfortable with having one of his direct reports buy him anything, even a drink, out of concern that any misperception might result from the action. The buyer might think he was currying favor with E.W. Or others who saw the exchange might perceive that E.W. somehow showed favor to the drink buyer over them.

"I told him thanks, but said I'd buy my own," writes E.W. Now he wonders if he was being too concerned and, as a result, insulted a guy who was just trying to do something nice.

E.W. was right to do exactly what he did. There had been no culture established of co-workers buying one another drinks, so there's no reason for that to change. Plus, if E.W. wants to set a clear precedent, doing it early on is the right thing to do. As long as E.W. is consistent in refusing to accept even minor gifts from his direct reports in the future, he needn't feel bad about having refused a drink from his former coworker at an after-work gathering. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

With all due respect to the intent of this column, I believe it was wrong-headed of the "promoted one" to think nothing had changed, and further foolish of him to carry the charade as far as he did. I may no longer be working, but I'm enough in the stream of "propriety" to realize this went too far and I'd suspect the motives and common sense of "the promoted one"! Give me a break!

Azalea Annie said...

E. W. was correct to insist on buying his own drink. Employees should not buy meals for the boss, or drinks for the boss.

Using the same common sense, politicians should not accept favors from lobbyists nor should politicians accept hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches. There is something being paid for......something for something is the goal.

Like the comment by Anonymous above, always suspect the motives of the giver/donor.......unless the donor is your mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, child, or best friend and it's your birthday or Christmas.