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It is interesting to find that many social events that are organized by managers or teams for the purpose of getting employees to socialize outside of work hours (e.g. lunchtime or after work events) end up being seen as another opportunity for people to complain/discuss/gossip about work related topics. I think constructive discussions about work outside of the work environment over a meal or an activity can help generate new ideas. However, the type of complaint or gossipy type of conversation usually seems to contribute to the build-up of frustration may not be particularly productive.

For example, if there is a farewell lunch organised for someone leaving, having that person talk negatively about their experiences at work, or even positive things at work (if people know it hasn't been as pleasant as is being politely described) can be awkward. Instead it is much better to direct the focus away from work-related topics altogether.

In jobs where there are particular political or organisational issues there is a tendency for people to become a little bit too focused on talking about these topics, and it doesn't serve the purpose of getting people out of that head space so they can actually relax and try to get to know people better.

Are there strategies that have been successfully employed to help people focus on topics other than work related matters at these events? Or is it just difficult to do this since it is still a work related event?

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    I think it really depends what the talk is about. If it is "hey this company sucks" then I can see how you might want to avoid it but I often find that during the "less stressful" lunch time that a work discussion can find "out of the box" solutions to problems that we couldn't nail down earlier that day. I wouldn't want every lunch to be a "meeting in disguise" but the casual aspect of lunch can actually bring out some great ideas.
    – scunliffe
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 20:50
  • @scunliffe Thanks for the comment. I have updated the question to be more specific about the work 'complaint' talks that would be good to avoid. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 22:48
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    Do the people attending the events want to avoid work-related discussions? I know of plenty of lunch groups, for example, that have developed rules to prevent work-related discussions (including making a loud buzzer sound when someone starts discussing something work related). But that sort of thing only works if everyone agrees that they want to avoid work-related conversations. If you're trying to convince people to socialize by having positive work-related discussions while avoiding negative work-related discussions, that's likely to be even harder. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 0:34
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    @JustinCave I think people talk about work either because they think it is expected, or that there isn't enough common topics between people so they defer to work related topics. And generally if there is a positive work environment there is no negative discussions. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 0:41
  • You can't force people to talk about what you want. That's not how socialization works. You can talk about whatever you want, and you can (hopefully politely) ask them to change topics with you, but you are not their conversation manager, and shouldn't try to be. You will only make you and the people around you upset.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 14:13

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Forget it. Folks who are enthusiastic about what they're doing like to talk about it, and that's OK.

The evening hike group sorted itself out happily into subsets: the serious hikers up front, who don't want to talk; the middle group who wanted to talk about work or related topics, and the folks at the back who wanted to talk about anything but work...and everyone was happy and could pick who they wanted to socialize with that day, or that minute.

Let folks work out a solution for themselves. It may not be the one you're expecting, but it will work better for them than anything imposed would.

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    +1 I meet up regularly with a group I've not worked with in 3+ years. Guess what - half the conversation is still work related! I only see shop talk as a negative if it's bordering on being actual work. Face it, it's the only reason we know each other so it stands to reason as easy common ground.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 21:44
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Are there strategies that have been successfully employed to help people focus on topics other than work related matters at these events? Or is it just difficult to do this since it is still a work related event?

The challenges here are (1) people have usually come from work and so are thinking about work, (2) sometimes finding the right person to talk to is hard and having the person there is often too good an opportunity to pass up and (3) work is something everyone has in common.

To focus on things other than work, identify interests people have outside work. Parents of similar aged children or those that watch or play the same sport are good places to start. Do some research beforehand and either use people good at small talk to "break the ice".

If you want people to focus on an event other than work, consider some activity that most people can participate in, such a light physical activity like lawn bowls.

Also consider the timing and location of the event itself. While spending sometime out of the office together can be helpful, it needs to be at a time and place that people want. For example, doing late nigh events with a company full of parents of small children is asking for trouble. Events at work are the easiest to attend but proximity encourages work conversations.

However, sometimes talking about work at these events is beneficial, particularly if you bring together groups that rarely talk. For example, I was part of a lunch time running club at a previous workplace and it was great to see things from a different point of view, both to solve issues and learn about new ones.

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  • I find the intrusiveness suggested especially in your 2nd paragraph seriously creepy. Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 11:49
  • @O.R.Mapper Maybe I should have phrased it differently. I am not talking about invading people's privacy. More that, if I happen to know two people with similar age children, I might mention that in front of them to jump start the conversation.
    – akton
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 11:51
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If I may be so bold, you're asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is: Why do people feel they need to talk negatively about work? If they don't do it at an organized event, they'll do it informally at work, over happy hour, or some other way in their off-time.

I have worked many places, some great and some not. The culture of the team is shaped by the environment that the employees sense. If there are issues that cause insecurity, fear, frustration, etc. address the real issues.

Also, it is critical that management give employees a constructive outlet to voice their concerns. Getting them to not talk about work at a work event is as pointless as trying to optimize workplace efficiency by having no bathrooms. People will need to relieve the pressure somehow. The best way I've found to do this is by having one-on-one meetings between employees and their supervisors where the employee is free to discuss anything they wish. This will also give manager's insights into what the real issues are that need to be addressed. If managers are new to one-on-one's, the manager-tools podcast is a good resource for learning how.

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  • I guess if people feel negatively about work then they will feel the need to talk negatively about it. I understand that there should be processes and channel in plan to deal with these situations, so the question was more about how to ensure that the focus is not on work related topics when the intention is to let employees do some enjoyable things outside of work. For example, at a farewell lunch for a colleague who is leaving, the last thing you probably want to do is have that person vent about things that didn't go right, etc. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 21:29

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