How to get out of the hated company Christmas lunch without negative consequences

Halfway between leisure and business, work dinners can help us bond with colleagues and bosses, but they can also feel like an obligation for employees who feel they already spend too much time with coworkers and don’t feel like going to dinner with them

Comida de empresa
A group of people at a company toast.franckreporter (Getty Images)

Of all the months of the year, December may be the one with the most commitments. Old and immutable Christmas traditions crowd our schedules along with new toasts and occasions to celebrate the fact that at least we are alive, and we can get together. Of all these events, there is one marked on every employee’s calendar: the company Christmas lunch or dinner. Halfway between leisure and business, the corporate Christmas dinner has become an unavoidable appointment for many workers who, despite not feeling like attending whatsoever, feel obliged to attend.

On social media, a reflection of the society in which we live, more and more voices are speaking out against these company events, which, despite not being contractually obligatory, can have negative consequences in an already charged work environment. At the end of 2022, an X user went viral when she asked her followers for ways to get out of a lunch with her coworkers that she had promised to attend: “Can you suggest excuses for not going to the Christmas lunch at work that I said I would go to?” asked the user, who didn’t have many followers. She received over 800 responses. Some recommended that she say she had tested positive for COVID, that she had a friend visiting or that she had “a renal colic that comes on without warning; it is unpredictable and also goes away quickly, the next day you are fine.” There were others who suggested that the user be honest: “I literally said I wasn’t going to go because I don’t feel like it, I already see them eight hours a day and that’s enough for me.” Still others advised putting up with it and learning her lesson for next year; they added that “in the end, I’m sure you’ll have a good time” and “it’s only one day.” Opinions were divided.

Why do we feel obligated to attend a company dinner? Or, put differently, why is it so hard for us to say no? “The following situation arises with company dinners: [they’re] a group of people with whom we share a group bond [and] the fact that they count on us activates a sense of belonging,” Violeta Alcocer, a clinical psychologist and director of the Hortaleza 73 Center in Madrid, Spain, explains to EL PAÍS. “And that invitation to belong is powerful, as well as generally beneficial, but the problem is when someone counts on us for something that we do not want to be part of. In this case, we have a dilemma, because if all those people give us a place in the group, we feel the obligation to reciprocate and take that place.”

But a sense of belonging is not the only reason why we end up wearing a tinsel necklace next to our boss, says Cristina Gutiérrez Campos, an executive coach and trainer in areas such as leadership and effective business communication. The fear of facing negative consequences at work for not attending also plays a role. “Although there should not be a penalty for declining an invitation to a company lunch or dinner, it is true that colleagues, teams and superiors can have a negative perception if it happens constantly. As a member of a group, not showing up could be seen as a lack of commitment to the team,” she explains to this newspaper. Gutiérrez Campos adds that “while one has the right to establish personal boundaries as a team member, it is advisable to weigh the consequences of not attending such events.”

Despite the initial lack of appeal or reluctance to devoting more free time to work-related things, psychologist Violeta Alcocer observes that these dinners can also serve “to cultivate curiosity.” She notes that “embarking on a plan that, a priori, we do not feel like [doing and] leaving aside preconceived notions can result in a very fun evening. In a similar vein, we have the opportunity to discover sides of our colleagues that may surprise us.” Coach Gutiérrez Campos concurs and lists a series of advantages to attending the lunch or dinner: “It is a way of relating to colleagues, teams and superiors, networking and consolidating relationships not only with the people with whom one works most directly, but also with people in other departments, which can facilitate better connections when it comes to doing work between interconnected departments. Likewise, attending fosters a sense of belonging and of pride in the organization and [allows you] to soak up more knowledge about the company and how it works.”

Glass red wine
A group of people at a company dinner. They're not having a bad time.miodrag ignjatovic (Getty Images)

Knowing all this, maybe we don’t care, because what we really want to do is have dinner with our friends, pet the cat or curl up on the couch to watch a show on Netflix, and not have a few too many drinks with Manolo from accounting. Good. You can always say no. On whether it is better to be honest or invent a story, the psychologist says that it depends on each case: “It depends on how much a company values the event, whether it is a very personal thing or more anonymous. It also depends on our own personal skills for handling the matter.” In general, Alcocer notes that it is always better to be sincere in a respectful way that values the other person: “The so-called sandwich technique can be useful in these cases. It consists of putting a negative message between two positive messages.” In other words, start with “thank you very much for inviting me,” followed by declining the invitation, and then adding “but the next day, I promise to bring some pastries in for breakfast, and let me know how the evening went.”

For her part, the coach believes that, in order to say no, it is essential to work on assertiveness: “That consists of achieving my goal at the lowest possible emotional cost for both the other person and for me, and maintaining relationships.” Depending on one’s relationship with teammates and superiors, Gutiérrez Campos recommends giving a more or less detailed explanation: “I always recommend thanking them for the invitation and electing to give more or less detailed reasons [for why we’re not going], depending on the relationship, based on our professional environment.”

If we have no choice but to go, what can we do to avoid anxiety that night?

The worst possible scenario has come to pass: we haven’t made a good excuse, they’ve changed the day so we can go, or we’ve succumbed to peer pressure after all our colleagues looked at us coldly during our coffee break. Now what? “We can try to find an alliance with someone we trust who makes us feel secure and who knows about our reluctance,” says psychologist Violeta Alcocer. She suggests “putting it in perspective: ‘What’s the worst that can happen? It’s one dinner a year, it’s not such a big deal.”

Cristina Gutiérrez Campos recommends keeping a positive attitude and going into it “with the mentality that you are going to have a good time.” She advises “being open to getting to know other people and showing interest.” The coach also suggests moderating your drinking, spending time with the groups you feel most comfortable with and “remembering that this is a new situation for many others, so it’s normal to feel some anxiety.” And at midnight, like Cinderella, we can go home.

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