is it normal to assign hotel roommates on a work trip? — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

A while back, I worked at a place which took our whole department of maybe 20-30 people on a vacation for a long weekend once a year. Everyone in our department was an expat, and there was an expectation that most people wouldn’t stay working in this country longer than a few years, so this trip was meant to be a perk of our jobs and to allow us to enjoy the country we were living and working in (Thailand). There were also some higher-ups on the trip and a few perfunctory dinners with them, but no actual working. This was framed to us as a vacation that was part of our compensation package. No plus-ones were allowed. At this workplace, there was a culture of people being close friends with their coworkers and regularly socializing outside of work, and there were definitely cliques. Not all, but at least half of the people going on this trip were in their twenties.

People were allowed to opt out of the trip, but I don’t recall many people choosing to, if any.

Before the trip, it was explained that everything was paid for, including airfare, hotel, meals, and ground transportation. There was no mention of hotel arrangements specifically. I assumed that people would choose their own friends to share a hotel room with. However when we got to the hotel, a roommate list was read aloud and we were all assigned to a same-gender colleague to share a room with. The roommate list was roughly organized by job title with some obvious tweaking to allow two male managers who were close friends to be able to share a room, and two female non-managers who were close friends with each other and those managers to be able to share a room. One woman had to share a room with her manager.

While the person I was assigned to room with was perfectly pleasant and fine to share a room with, we weren’t close friends, and I certainly would have had a better time had I been allowed to select my own roommate. I understand it’s normal for people to be asked to share a room with a colleague on business travel when it’s just a few people going, but this seemed odd to me for a departmental vacation where so many people are going. I know others also thought it was odd, but no one pushed back at the time or asked to change rooms. Is this normal? And if it is normal to be assigned a roommate, is it normal not to be told in advance who you’ll be sharing with?

No, this is not normal.

First, I want to push back on the idea that it’s normal to be expected to share a room at all. In some industries, it is — you see it pretty commonly in academia, nonprofits, and some other fields without a ton of money to throw around. You also tend to see it in fields that run on young people (possibly because they figure young people will care less, which they often do, maybe because they’re not that far removed from the stage of sharing dorm rooms, etc.).

But there are lots of fields where expecting people to share rooms would be incredibly weird! And with good reason: Sharing a hotel room is awfully intimate. You don’t normally see coworkers in their pajamas, hear them snoring, or become familiar with their sleep or bathroom habits. Travel also can be draining, and most people want rest and privacy at the end of the day. Plus, people don’t always have compatible sleep habits (whether it’s bedtimes, or needing to sleep with light or a TV on, or needing absolute silence). And some people have medical conditions they’d prefer not to disclose or be forced to manage in front of colleagues.

It’s true, though, that there are fields where sharing hotel rooms is normal anyway. (Which is often hard for people in other fields to believe — they tend to be horrified by it for the reasons above.) And even in fields where you might normally get your own room on business travel, sometimes you find room-sharing arrangements on “reward” trips like the one you’re describing, where they’re taking the whole team and the trip is seen as a fun perk.

Still, even in those cases it is not normal to simply be assigned a roommate, without any chance for input. Sleeping in the same room as someone is an intimate thing, and people should be allowed to decide who they are and aren’t comfortable doing that with.

It’s also odd that your company didn’t give you a heads-up about the room-sharing arrangements before the trip so people could decide if they were up for that or not, or even offer to pay the difference to get themselves a private room.

There’s something very camp-like about how your employer approached this. I suspect it’s because you were all mostly young — I can’t see this flying otherwise.

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