Fri., November 29, 2013 7:35am (EST)

WORKING: Shopping On The Clock
By Joshua Stewart
Updated: 8 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
Susan’s boss gathered the team and took them to a long lunch. Then they stopped a nearby fashion accessories store to do a little shopping. All of this happened during the workday. Susan feels guilty about shopping during work and is uncomfortable with the time away from the office. Workplace expert Brandon Smith says the problem isn’t so much the outing as the boss’s failure to explain its purpose. (Photo Courtesy of Robert Linder via stock.xchng.)
Susan’s boss gathered the team and took them to a long lunch. Then they stopped a nearby fashion accessories store to do a little shopping. All of this happened during the workday. Susan feels guilty about shopping during work and is uncomfortable with the time away from the office. Workplace expert Brandon Smith says the problem isn’t so much the outing as the boss’s failure to explain its purpose. (Photo Courtesy of Robert Linder via stock.xchng.)
Susan’s boss gathered the team and took them to a long lunch. Then they stopped a nearby fashion accessories store to do a little shopping.

All of this happened during the workday.

“We were gone from the office for more than two hours,” Susan (last name withheld) wrote in an email to workplace expert Brandon Smith. “I was uncomfortable with shopping during work hours. I am salaried.

“I have had a good relationship with my manager. But this makes me doubt her integrity. How should I handle this?”

Smith said the outing is probably no big deal, but the boss’s failure to explain the reason for the lunch and shopping is what creates the problem.

“The boss didn’t say, ‘Hey, this is going to be a team-building event. We’re actually going to spend a little extra time, we’re going to do some things like shopping. But it really isn’t about the shopping; it’s more about us getting to know each other in a different way so we can be more effective back in the workplace,’” Smith said. “I think that’s the issue here [and] that’s what’s going on.”

Smith, also a professor at Emory University who teaches about communication and leadership, said the organization’s (or industry’s) culture determines what a team-building event like this looks like, but he said these kinds of events are not unusual.

“What I would generally say here is, loosen up a little bit, Susan,” he said. “Your boss is trying to get you and others to build better relationships. So, assuming that’s the case, let that unfold. You could probably benefit from it as much as, if not more than, everyone else. Sounds like you’re a pretty all-by-the-books kind of person. People probably don’t know you that well.”

Smith said it also would be OK to ask about the goal if Susan is unsure.

“Go to the manager—and give her the benefit of the doubt—and say, ‘You know, my assumption is we’re doing this for team-building, and I think this has been valuable. I’m just a little uncomfortable with the shopping. Can we think of another way we could achieve the same objective?’ Smith said.

“That might be something that the manager would be open to,” he said.

Smith also noted that outings like the lunch and shopping trip can cross into ethical gray areas in some situations.

For instance, it could become a problem if the long lunches become a weekly event or if the boss is using company resources for the outings, Smith said.

And he said the lunch outings become a concern if they mean work isn’t getting done.

“So now Susan has to stay ‘til 7, 8, 9 p.m., she’s got to make it up on the back end, that’s also a problem because it’s bleeding into other aspects of her life.”

Brandon Smith teaches about leadership, communication, and workplace culture at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. More of his advice is on his blog and at theworkplacetherapist.com. While you’re there, ask him your workplace or career question. We might answer you in a future radio segment.