MT EXPERT: When work drinks go bad

Companies may be missing out by not promoting talented staff who stay away from work socials, argues Enterprise Rent-A-Car's Donna Miller. Managers need to be more inclusive.

by Donna Miller
Last Updated: 28 Feb 2014

At about 4:50pm every Friday, offices across the country begin to wind down for the weekend and many go out for a well-deserved drink. What better excuse to catch up with colleagues and start the weekend? Yet, for all its joviality, Friday drinks can unintentionally create a divisive environment in which tomorrow’s talent risks being overlooked for promotion.

Consider people in a company who stay away because they aren’t fans of a rowdy bar atmosphere, have other commitments, such as getting home to their children, or are teetotalers or Muslims. While they are absent, their colleagues are, perhaps unknowingly, putting themselves in a position to build better relationships with their bosses.

This can result in management unwittingly favouring those who are seen to ‘fit in’. It is also a way that senior management can build the confidence of employees lower down the ladder and shape their careers. Those that are part of the prevailing culture receive an informal and unconscious form of mentoring. It may be accidental and subtle, but that does not stop it being harmful.

It’s not just Friday drinks that can create this kind of non-inclusive scenario. The company sports day is another example. What about those who find golf dull, football tedious or cricket pointless? It seems unfair that people should miss out on what are, in essence, networking events and a chance to impress senior management because they’re not into sport.

What about networking events themselves? Recent research on introverts in the workplace by Susan Cain showed that organisations prefer individuals who ‘relish social life, and are energised by interacting with friends and strangers’. Networking events are social scenarios that reward those who are comfortable talking about themselves to relative strangers.

What reward is there for those who are quieter, who feel less of a need to boast about their achievements? These people are likely to be the bedrock of a company, working efficiently and immersing themselves in tasks. There is a risk of this sort of person not being rewarded and worse, from both the company’s perspective and their own, being overlooked for positions of greater responsibility where their skills could be much more valuable.

This phenomenon is, in many ways, a form of ‘unconscious bias,’ which many of us are familiar with as something that relates to gender, sexuality and social background, but actually occurs in many other situations.

There is good reason for managers to be aware of this bias and overcome it. If you’re informally helping out people you get on with socially, while ignoring those who might be less interested or even less interesting socially, there’s a risk that this bias – unconscious though it may be – will result in a management structure that lacks originality and dynamism. It may even mean those who are more qualified, harder working and have greater potential are being ignored.

Managers who are guilty of this sort of bias are in danger of shooting themselves in the foot by narrowing their talent pipeline. Organisations that invest time and effort to create diversity in the workplace can easily see that hard work undone if they fail to recognise this.

At Enterprise, managers receive training and are encouraged to think about how their behaviour might cause unconscious bias in social situations. By stepping back and observing how their colleagues interact, they can ensure employees do not miss out on building positive working relations. Similarly, we create opportunities for non-office-based employees, such as homeworkers or sales people, to interact and build their networks within the company.

Bosses need to ask themselves what their ideal management team would look like. Does it contain a range of personalities, skill sets, interests, cultures, ideas and backgrounds, or is it a collection of clones?

Donna Miller is European HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car

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