my office loves expensive, physically demanding team-building activities — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

For the past five years, I have been employed at a small consulting firm (~20 employees). My CEO and coworkers are all genuinely smart, kind, and thoughtful people who want to do good, and I have loved it here for the most part — projects are interesting and impactful, generous compensation and benefits, good work-life balance, etc. However, I’ve come to realize that the sector I work in tends to be staffed by mostly well-meaning, wealthy, white people, my workplace included.

Something that has always annoyed me is that our quarterly team-building days are centered around expensive and physically demanding activities like skiing, sailing, mountaineering, and ice climbing (we are based in the Pacific Northwest — and yes, these team-building sessions are still happening during Covid since they take place outside). We have four team-building days a year, and all four of them are like this. The CEO of my company organizes the tedious logistics for them personally (carpool assignments, lunch orders, lessons and rental equipment) because he loves planning them so much.

I am the only non-white staff member and the only one from a poor background — it’s probably no surprise that I have zero experience undertaking any of these activities. While I have grudgingly attended a few “snow days” over the years (mostly hanging out alone in the lodge while everyone else whizzed down double black diamonds in Moncler ski jackets), I usually skip them and opt to work my regular shift instead, which is company policy if you don’t attend.

Having recently returned from maternity leave, my annoyance at these team outings has intensified lately. We have another snow day coming up in a few weeks, and the additional factors of having to nurse my baby every 2-3 hours, plus my reluctance to gather in a big group (even outside and socially distanced) during a global pandemic, means I will miss another day in the mountains with my coworkers. I feel extra resentful for being expected to put in a regular eight-hour day while everyone else gets the day off to go skiing.

Do you think I should speak up about the elitist and exclusionary aspects of these team-building activities, even though I am literally the only person on staff who feels this way? If so, do you have any advice on how I can do this tactfully, without sounding like a killjoy?

I take it that no one at your firm has ever had physical restrictions that would make these activities uncomfortable or impossible for them? Or would they just be expected to work in the office while everyone else skis, sails, hikes, and ice climbs?

I mean, I suppose it’s good that your office at least lets people opt out even without a medical reason — there are some offices that don’t — but you’re absolutely right that this is exclusionary. If the point is truly team-building (as opposed to just letting the CEO plan a ski day because he loves to plan ski days), then it makes no sense whatsoever to continually choose activities that exclude some people. It would be one thing if they did one activity like this a year, and something else for the other three — but all four are like this every year? Nah, that’s a problem.

And to be clear, it’s very hard — impossible, really — to pick team-building/social activities that everyone will like. But you have four of these days a year. They can’t mix it up some of the time?

As for whether to speak up … I’d love to just say yes, both on principle and because a good workplace would want to hear this kind of input. But in reality, it depends on your sense of how your CEO and other would react, and how much capital you think you’d need to spend. Some managers would be mortified to hear how you’ve been feeling and would be grateful you told them. Others … would not be.

But ideally, you’d be to explain that you aren’t able to participate in the activities they’ve been choosing and ask that at least some of these events be focused around something more inclusive. You could say something like, “As we’re thinking about next quarter’s event, would you be open to changing up what we do? I’d really like to be able to participate, but skiing, sailing, mountaineering, and ice climbing aren’t options for me. Would you be open to X or Y instead?” If that’s shot down, then you’d explain the impact of that — “When our team-building events are always things I can’t participate in, it feels like the opposite of team-building to me. Since we do four a year, can we make room for some of them to be more inclusive activities?”

Also, any chance that you’re not the only one on staff who’d welcome a change? Most offices have people who go along with this kind of thing because they don’t want to make waves, but who secretly aren’t thrilled with it. It might be worth trying to feel out some coworkers on it. And even if it turns out that everyone truly loves these quarterly Feats of Expensive Athleticism, they still might be willing to support changing it up, simply from hearing how you feel.

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