Can My Employer Make Me Socialize With Co-Workers?

Office workers playing with balloons
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It's holiday party time, so this question I received from a reader is timely:

I just read your article about social media passwords, and I have a question for you that my HR person cannot seem to answer for me. My boss told me that I am not relating to the other employees (I didn't realize that I wasn't) and wants me to go to lunch with them or go shopping with them on the weekend. They are mean and spiteful people who look for any way to manipulate people. She asked me about my personal life and made me feel like I had to answer so I did tell her some things. (I won't make that mistake again.) She made personal comments about my relationship and encouraged me to break it off. I would never, ever tell anyone that. What are my rights here? I spoke with our HR department who said that she can say whatever she wants (no matter how rude!), but I can say, "It's my personal life and I do not wish to talk about it." Did they tell me the truth or leave part out? Can she make me go places on my breaks or off time with people I do not want to go anywhere with? I really need some help.

Thank you for advising me on this.

Especially around the holidays, there's pressure on employees to socialize with co-workers. Some companies try to make the holiday parties mandatory. Others have "team building" events overnight or on weekends. Some expect the team to have lunch together. And guess what? You aren't going to be paid for any of this.

What's an overworked employee to do?

Option 1: Say No

Your boss can't "make" you do anything on your own time. Of course, every state except Montana is an at-will state, which means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all (with exceptions, like discrimination, FMLA, etc.). If your boss thinks you don't get along with your co-workers well enough, aren't a "team player" or is just ticked that you didn't do what you were asked, you could be out of there.

There are some legal options. Here are some laws that might help you if you can't or won't go with the flow:

Religious accommodation: If you're being asked to do something with co-workers on a Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday or a religious holiday, you may legitimately ask for a religious accommodation, assuming that you really celebrate the Sabbath or the religious holiday. Another possible religious accommodation is, if the event or activity will involve alcohol, and your religion does not permit you to attend events where alcohol is served, then you might have a legal out. Some religions do not permit celebrations of birthdays or holidays, so if you belong to one of those religions, then you are legally protected if you decline.

Sexual and other harassment: If you have been subjected to sexual harassment (or race, age, national origin, or other illegal harassment), and the harasser is going to attend, now is probably a good time to use the employer's sexual harassment policy to report the unwanted harassment and ask to be excused from the event if the harasser is going to attend.

Disability accommodation: If you have a disability that requires you to stay away from certain foods or avoid certain activities, you may be able to ask for an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act to be excused from the activity or event.

That's about it. I'm sure my employment law colleagues and employees who have encountered this situation will offer other options if they know of any in the comments section. Mostly, saying no is a difficult choice, because it makes you vulnerable to being fired.

Option 2: Say Yes

I think most career counselors will tell you to go with the flow if you can. If you fall into one of the categories above, then you might not be able to, but otherwise, you should probably say yes, no matter how ridiculous the request is.

You do have some legal rights:

Mandatory activity: If you are threatened that failure to attend will result in termination or discipline, it isn't a voluntary event. That means, if you aren't exempt from overtime, you probably must be paid for your attendance. Keep copies of any notices, emails or text messages indicating that failure to attend is not an option, then talk to the Department of Labor or an employment lawyer in your state about getting paid if the company fails to pay for your time.

Sexual and other harassment: Companies are really vulnerable this time of year because drinking frequently brings out the worst in people. If you are sexually harassed, or if inappropriate racist, religious, national origin, ageist, or other remarks are made at the event, report them immediately, in writing, the next day you can.

A word of warning: It's tempting to drink at events, especially if you really don't want to be there. Don't forget you are expected to act professionally at all times. My best suggestion is avoid having more than a drink or two, and don't do anything you don't want on the front page of the company newsletter.

I know. None of the options are great, but I don't have a magic wand to make the employment laws any better for employees (Note to self: Add magic wand to Christmas list). Rock, meet hard place. Happy holidays!

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in an upcoming live video chat.
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