Analyze This

Bashful At The Office Beach Party

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

I dread off-site company get-togethers. This summer I was really self-conscious at a beach day, where we were expected to wear bathing suits. I don’t want to bare myself (or my imperfections) in front of colleagues–or get the worst score at the bowling party. But I’d be noticed (in a bad way) if I opted out of these “fun” events. – Anonymous, New York

There’s a lot of talk these days about the current trend of blurring work and personal life–the continuous BlackBerry connection to the office, the piling up of unused vacation time.

A stress on socializing, too, comes with this new merged world, according to Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute, which researches workplace trends. “Companies see it as a community-building thing,” she says, “not the old patriarchal Christmas party.”

Some employees are happy to reveal their “selves” at work. But for others, the permission to open up leads to anxiety and elicits the opposite response: withdrawal.

That’s understandable when you’re literally exposed in a bathing suit. Our non-physical imperfections are always on display at the office, but there’s a special vulnerability in displaying one’s body. While you may feel it more than others because of self-consciousness about your looks (or even a worry about being seductive), chances are that many at the beach felt a little odd about being skimpily dressed at a work function. Companies need to be sensitive to the awkwardness they can create in the name of having a good time or providing bonding opportunities. 

I’M NOT SAYING THAT such events can’t be fun, or a good way to deepen trust, enhance teamwork, and improve morale. But one reason you’re tempted to opt out may be that you can’t escape the feeling that these social events are really in the realm of work and career advancement–which they are (hence the pressure to opt in).

Nothing wrong with being aware of all that. At the same time, if you’re paralyzed by the thought that your every move or utterance at a swim or bowling party is being observed under a microscope–well, that is a problem. Eventually, you might want to grapple with this sort of inhibition, which makes you more rigid under stress. Meanwhile, don’t wear anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, period. (I’m at a loss for bowling advice.) In my view, the trend toward merging life and work is neither good nor bad. But for employers and employees alike, it demands a new level of self-awareness.