A reader writes:
I am a mid-level manager at a medium-sized company. I have worked here for four years now, and this problem has been happening since I started.
About six months after I started, my boss invited me to a Halloween party at her house. I felt like I should go because she is my boss and I was relatively new still. When I told her I was coming, she invited me (and my boyfriend) to spend the night at her house since we live a little less than an hour away and there would be alcohol. I declined and told her I would just stay sober to drive us home.
At the party, an employee who reports directly to me was there. When she saw me, she also invited my boyfriend and I to spend the night at her house so I could drink. Again I declined and just limited myself to one beer over the four hours we were there. The party was fine and uneventful. This would have been a little bit weird, but not too awkward if that had been the end of it. It was not.
The two of them are in the same social circle and seem to spend time together outside of work a lot. I tend to be a little anti-social at work. I am very good at my job, but I am a very different person in my personal life and my professional life and I prefer for the two not to cross.
Since this party, both my boss and my employee have asked if my boyfriend and I would like to spend the night at their house at least a dozen times. Each time I have declined immediately. Almost always it is under the guise of “you guys should come over and have a few drinks, then you can just spend the night if you need to” … but not always. My employee has asked if we want to go with her to her beach house for the weekend, once she asked if my whole family (two teenage kids included) would like to spend the night after a volleyball tournament that was slightly closer to her house than ours, my boss just got a new hot tub and keeps asking if I want to come over after work and get in the hot tub and have a drink then spend the night and ride into the office together the next day …
I do attend my boss’ annual Halloween party, but outside of that I have not socialized with either of them outside of work. I like them both professionally and just as people. I would most likely be friends with them if they were not my boss and my employee, but they are and it is weird.
How do I make it stop? Also. the only rational explanation for this that I can think of is that they are some kind of swingers or something? Am I wrong? I can be a little wild on the weekends (hence keeping my personal and professional life separate) but am I just reading too much into this? Is there some other reason why middle-aged people would invite other middle-aged people to spend the night so regularly?
What on earth!
They … could be swingers, I guess? But they could also just have really bad professional boundaries — which is definitely the case regardless of whether there’s swinging going on or not.
It’s not great that your boss and your employee socialize this much outside of work! That puts you in an awkward situation if you ever have serious concerns about your employee’s work, or if she asks for/expects special treatment because she assumes her relationship with your boss entitles her to it, or if other people assume she gets special treatment because of it. Even aside from all the overnight invitations, this is a problem.
I think it’s quite plausible that they’re not swingers and there’s nothing weirder going on than that they’re too close for an employee/grandboss relationship, and they assume other people will have similarly loose boundaries so they’re trying to include you in that.
Or they could be swingers. One can never write that off entirely.
You have a good chance at getting the overnight invitations to stop if you give a blanket “no” the next time they extend one — something like, “I always prefer to sleep at home” or “I’ve got kids so I’m always going to leave early enough to sleep at home.” If they invite your kids too, you can say, “We’re all more comfortable sleeping at home.”
Also, though, do you have the kind of relationship with your boss where you’d be comfortable talking about it more head-on? As in, “I appreciate how welcoming you and Jane have been with the invitations to your homes! I think I’d enjoy hanging out socially if we didn’t work together, but as long as we do, I’m never going to feel comfortable with that. It’s not personal, it’s just what helps me keep the work/life boundaries I need.” You could say something similar to your employee, too.
But … ugh. There’s a bigger discussion that needs to happen with your boss (or possibly with HR) about the complications arising from her relationship with your employee, but given how close they seem, I’m skeptical that it will change their relationship in any meaningful way. An alternative is to look at whether you are experiencing any negative side effects from it (like hesitating to give your employee feedback because of their relationship) and if you are, focus there — but it’s a clusterfudge of not insignificant proportions.