WEEKDAYS 11e|10c|p

How I Learned 'Team-Building' Can Be An Excuse For Sanctioned Inappropriateness

By Jedediah Bila | Oct 25th, 2016

"Team building."

"Workplace bonding."

I'm sure you've heard the terms tossed around corporate America. Sounds like a great idea, right? Let's talk.

A few years back, I was dating a shy guy who worked for a small financial company in Manhattan. He was career-driven, but not terribly social. One day, he came home somewhat distressed and I asked what was the matter.

"I have to go on a work trip," he said. He looked like he'd seen a ghost.

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"It doesn't sound like a work trip at all. Basically, they want me to hit the middle of the woods and camp with a bunch of work people drinking and hanging for a weekend. And stay in a motel together. It's supposed to make us bond as a team or something. And you're not allowed to come."

He didn't look happy.

I wanted to be supportive. I wanted this very shy, often-antisocial guy beside me to have the chance to share some of his great personality with the world. And I knew it would be good for his standing with the company. He'd build relationships, I told myself. He'd make connections with co-workers who could promote his ideas and further his development at the company. I convinced myself within moments that I had to be the positive voice that would egg him on to head out into the forest and set up camp for the weekend.

I was convincing. He reluctantly gave in. And he drove off to the woods in upstate New York one Friday afternoon for a new adventure.

That night, I decided to hang with a friend who also worked in finance. Over dinner, she was filled in on the story.

"You sent him where?!" she asked.

"Team building or something. It's like a camping trip with work people to build relationships."

She started cracking up. "Girl, grab your purse. You're about to learn something."

Two hours later, we arrived at the camping site where my boyfriend and his co-workers were "team building." It was dark, but I could see two campfires lit nearby. Almost everyone was drinking. There were piles of empty beer bottles on the ground. A female and male were off walking in the distance, drinks in hand, looking up at the sky and laughing. A group of guys and girls were playing tug-of-war by the lake. Some soon fell on top of each other. A girl and two guys were on the ground playing some kind of drinking game that involved a truth or dare-type scenario.

My friend looked at me and smiled. "This is what 'team building' can turn into. What do you think?"

My stomach got knotted up. I looked around at the empty bottles of alcohol and the attire they were wearing: Bikinis, shirtless guys, daisy dukes. What had I walked into?

My boyfriend had been right. I had been wrong. This was a messed-up, twisted version of professional relationship building. And then it occurred to me that my guy was somewhere in the midst of it all. And he had only gone because I had insisted.

Talk about wanting to throw up.

I started rushing around looking for him. I couldn't find him anywhere. Had he somehow listened to stupid me and submerged himself in this hot mess?

Two hours later, I found him. In his hotel room. Alone. Reading a book. And trying to call me.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had one of the good ones. But then I got to thinking about the whole "team-building" phenomenon in all its glorious dysfunction.

Getting drunk amid inappropriate talk with co-workers of the opposite sex (and same sex if that's what you're into) in settings where your significant other is told to stay home by the company isn't productive toward anything but troublemaking.

And the more I talked to people, the more I became aware of how this nonsense was perpetuating corporate America and trying to establish itself as the new normal. "Work" trips where husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends aren't allowed to attend, held in places where you put in a few hours of work, followed by bar-hopping, clubbing, or sitting around hotel hot tubs half-naked while drinking, isn't team-building. It's sanctioned inappropriateness under the guise of workplace bonding.

Look, I'm all for actual team-building. CEOs, organize in-office projects that enable company members to meet and work with different people with diverse skill sets throughout the company. Do a company barbecue or get-together a few times a year where people's families or significant others are invited so that company members get a sense of who workers are as whole people. Put together team-based in-office challenges that encourage different groups of people to work together at different times to meet end goals. Make it fun and rewarding with prizes.

But CEOs, if you're sending workers off to bars, clubs, or party trips where their significant others aren't invited, YOU are part of the problem. And exactly how do those scenarios ultimately boost one's work productivity and professional work dynamic?

Go ahead. Answer. I'm waiting.

Do us all a favor, corporate America—don't sugarcoat a lemon. If you're interested in genuine team-building, do it right. Be respectful. Care about the message you're sending to your employees and the atmosphere you're creating. But don't serve up trouble under the guise of in-office bonding. Some of us are way smarter than that.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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