There’s a big difference between socializing with colleagues at a bar or a company holiday party and inviting them into your home. I’ve gotten tipsy with my Slate comrades in local watering holes, sung karaoke with them, and danced with them at the company retreat, but I hesitate to ask them to cross the threshold to my apartment for a party. That’s because breaching the professional/domestic divide is like making a high-risk investment—with the potential for great social reward comes the threat of total career ruin.
The risk side of that calculation is especially potent if you, like me, are fairly early in your career. Say you aspire to mix your regular friends with your work pals—what if the former group’s entertaining behavior has not yet graduated from kegger to cocktail party? Add that to the fact that your budget and domicile may be modest, and the prospect of inviting older colleagues over feels increasingly awkward. More senior professionals, meanwhile, may also hesitate to invite subordinates, wondering if their younger colleagues will meet their entertaining expectations—and if showing off their comfortable quarters and fancy foodstuffs might breed resentment.
Indeed, real estate anxieties definitely play a big role. I live in a studio apartment, which means there’s no back room to hide personal items away from view. Sure, I share office furniture with my cubicle mate, but will he feel awkward sitting on my bed or resting his glass of wine on my vanity? Similarly, a colleague who owns a home in an “emerging neighborhood” in Brooklyn hesitates to invite colleagues over, fearing their judgments of the area. But those with chic dwellings have just as much to fear as those with shabby ones: If your peers think your home is worth a lot more than theirs, will they assume your salary is unfairly elevated? Or will your boss conclude that you have a secret inheritance and hesitate to give you a raise the next time you ask?
Issues of property value aside, alcohol—a necessary ingredient for any get-together—conjures the stumbling specter of further embarrassment: What if your free-spirited friends embarrass you in front of your boss by getting too drunk or saying something inadvertently offensive? What if you embarrass you in front of your boss by getting too drunk or saying something inadvertently offensive? An off-the-cuff remark made while sloshed might become a treasured inside joke with your colleagues—or it might result in awkward glances and burning shame at Monday morning’s staff meeting.
To figure out when and under what circumstances I should invite my colleagues over, I asked—who else?—my colleagues. They obliged me with anecdotes and rules of thumb that boil down to five crucial directives:
Take your cues from your office’s culture. If your office is rigid and hierarchical and doesn’t encourage socializing, maybe leave your colleagues off your guest list. If the tenor of your office is friendly, informal, and collaborative, go for it. If you’re really not sure, it can’t hurt to check with HR. Slate’s vibe is pretty casual, but just to be safe, I called our HR director, Tracey Coronado, to ask what she thought about entertaining your colleagues. (“I tend to be for it,” she replied.)
Only invite colleagues you actually like. “I have invited co-workers to house parties, and maybe one or two to a dinner party, because I was genuinely friends with them,” says my colleague Katherine Goldstein. A common domain name on your work email addresses does not ensure that you will have anything else to make small talk about.
But don’t be overly exclusive. The old rule about elementary school birthday parties still applies: Either invite less than half the class, or invite everyone. There’s no excuse for leaving out one or two people just because you’re not as close to them as you are to your other colleagues. “It feels horrible to realize your co-workers are whispering and emailing about something you weren’t invited to,” says Slate copy editor Ryan Vogt.
Don’t misplace your inhibitions. “When I’m hanging out with work people, maybe I won’t have that extra drink. I don’t want to spill anything that would change my relationship with people at work or anything like that,” says Tracey from HR. Of course, this rule applies outside the home, too—you can say regrettable things to colleagues even when you’re not entertaining. (Ask me about the time I attempted to demonstrate my commitment to Slate by slurrily telling my boss that I totally would have procured cocaine for the company retreat if he’d asked me to.)
Let the superior make the first move. “I always put it on the boss to invite the employee first,” says Tracey. “I would never randomly invite my boss to something, especially if it’s a small dinner party.” With power dynamics at play, some bosses shy away from socializing with underlings, which is why it’s a good idea to have a clear sign—like an invitation to a party at their house—that it’s OK to extend an invitation of your own. And if you are the boss, make sure not to put any pressure on underlings to come to your barbecue—no one likes to feel coerced into spending leisure time with their manager.
We may be somewhat removed from the days when hosting a pot-roast dinner with the boss and his wife was necessary for career advancement, but mixing cubicle and domicile can still have its benefits: There’s no better way to create a feeling of camaraderie with your colleagues than schmoozing off the clock. Just temper your celebratory attitude with a healthy dose of caution: Remember, you have to spend 8 hours a day with these people.