How to set boundaries when your workplace wants to be a family

Setting boundaries at work

Is it really so bad to want to do your job and go home without having to socialize with your colleagues? In some roles, this may be acceptable, but if your organization sees itself as a “big family” then ‘work’ is likely to also include social lunches, happy hours, and even holidays with your coworkers. So is there a way to opt-out of the corporate merriments without hurting your career?

Joining a professional “family” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

“We’re all a big family here” has become a strangely common phrase in the modern workplace. While organizations might use it as a shorthand to describe an office environment that is friendly, supportive, and where colleagues like to spend time together, the reality can be quite different.“Families are dysfunctional,” says Dr. Marina Field, a career coach and lecturer in social-organizational psychology at Columbia University, New York. “A lot of times, if you’re describing your organization as a family, then you’re talking about something that might have some dysfunctional aspects.”

For all the benefits of having a thriving social life at work, there are also real costs. One study found that maintaining work friendships often detracts from job performance. Not to mention, too much socializing can actually have negative health effects, even for extroverts. And for workers with families or external friendships to maintain as well, being obliged to socialize with colleagues can feel like an extra chore rather than a pleasure.

“It goes over the boundaries of our work,” says Tyler Hutchinson, who works for a startup in Perth, Australia. “It’s good to be on good terms with coworkers but having them treat you like family means when conflicts arise, it gets difficult to resolve and is awkward for the rest of the team.” Also in Perth, Adrian Carter agrees. “I’m not an antisocial person; it’s just that I prefer having space from people at work. Sometimes close bonds tamper with your professional relationships and opportunities.”

Others feel uncomfortable with the concept of a work family. “I prefer the term ‘team’ because teammates expect each other to perform at their best,” says Christopher Brereton, vice-president of a software company in Portland, Oregon. While a team implies working together towards a goal, “a family is different. You don’t get to choose who your parents are. You don’t expect each other to show up and practice. This, to me, is the wrong metaphor for building a business.”

Beyond discomfort, the expectation of taking part in a familial work environment is simply not a realistic option for some employees. Workers with families, external responsibilities, or simply hobbies outside of work may not have time for extra social activities with colleagues. Those with certain neurodivergences may find some types of socializing tiring and stressful. Minority cultures may find the same if they are having to code-switch and play a role to fit in with the majority culture all day.

Even so, the penalties for not joining in and socializing with coworkers can be severe. “You run the risk of separating yourself,” Field says. “Organizations might have an in-group and out-group, and by not doing any activities, you might lose out on opportunities.” This could be the professional possibilities that are so often accessed through networking, or simply feeling like you work in a place where you are liked and respected on your own terms.

This was the case in a previous role for Emma Gordon in Los Angeles, California. “Being antisocial killed relationships between my colleagues and me,” she says. Her highly-social coworkers thought she was aloof and speculated that she had a neurodivergence that prevented her from spending time with them. While her job performance was good, she says, “people neglected me whenever there was an opportunity.” Ultimately, she didn’t feel comfortable in the organization and has since left and founded her own business.

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How to set boundaries

So what about those workers who don’t want to join in with the “big-family” culture but also don’t want to quit their jobs? Some compromise will probably be necessary, says Field. It might not be possible to opt-out of every social occasion at work, but there are ways to take a step back without it taking a toll on your career.

Think ahead

Whether you are well suited for the culture within an organization is something to investigate at the interview stage, before you even accept the job. Field suggests asking culture-specific questions: “Are you expected to socialize every day with your coworkers after work? Do you have a sit-down meal together at lunchtime? When you have an understanding, then you can determine whether that is something that you want to do.”

Get strategic

Before saying no to a social event, consider the impact it may have on your career at the organization. “If you’re a new person, some of these activities might be there to help you with assimilating. If you’ve been at the organization for some time, some of the things that they’re expecting of you lead to ways to get promoted or get on those big projects,” Field says. If you’re at a place in your career where it would be useful to make connections, saying yes could sometimes be in your best interests.

Create your own social scene

There are many ways to build a network within an organization, and the one that best suits you might not be the same as what works for everyone else. “You might say, ‘I’m not going to go to happy hour, but I can do a walking meeting with someone or set up a virtual meeting,’” Field says. “Think about what the organization’s expectations are and what your individual needs are, and try coming up with other activities to achieve the same purpose as what the organization is demanding.”

Find a role model

Lastly, there are likely others within the organization who also feel uncomfortable or unable to join in with the family dynamic. Those who manage to avoid always joining in, but are still valued members of the team, may be able to teach you something. “Look for role models within your organization, meaning other people who are successfully maintaining those boundaries,” Field says. “If you feel comfortable reaching out to that person, ask them how they manage to do it. If you don’t feel comfortable asking them, maybe you can just be inspired by some of that behavior to help you create your own boundaries.”

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