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In defence of the anti-social

Alan Zheng explores the faces we put on in our professional lives.

work Artwork: Jess Zlotnick

For many students, corporate social life is a glitzy, alluring window into the unspoken excesses of our working lives. While, at its core, the workplace is a stirring ideal of well-kempt professionality, it is often forgotten that amidst the nine-to-five grind, employees work in an artificially designed and often constraining social environment.

The intricacies of these social environments are not always physical or observable, though sometimes they can be. In a renewed shift to open-plan offices and alternative ‘break-out’ spaces, workplace cultures and social microcosms within large companies exist not so much as an attempt at goodwill for developing new employees but more so as a filter which greets prospective employees before they get their foot in the door.

After all, these carefully curated environments are an opportunity for employers to maintain and sell the abstract social cultures of ‘excellence’, ‘ambition’ and similar other iterations which they so precisely propagate in shiny marketing materials. In these environments, there is a minimum expectation which pressures performance in accordance with the one-sided terms of engagement and participation set by employers.

Employers have all the power and would-be employees desperately want the job. Every year, thousands of university students participate in networking events advertised across Facebook, some as part of structured events run by clubs and societies. They spanall the way from the Sydney Uni Engineering Undergraduates Association’s (SUEUA) industry night to Financial Management Association of Australia’s (FMAA) cocktail evenings. Other social events are mandatory and built-in to strategic recruitment programs, like the infamous cocktail nights run by Australia’s big-six law firms for prospective law clerks every summer.

There is no inherent issue with students networking in these environments. Identity-based networking nights like those targeted at people of colour, migrants or women-identifying students give otherwise disadvantaged groups the opportunity to socially collectivise, form empowering professional and support networks and ascend a corporate ladder whilst gaining social mobility in broader society.

But these social environments often activate the best and worst of us. At their worst, these social environments are elitist and toxic. They insist the presentation of a face to meet other faces and demand the co-opting or drowning of a true internal self. It demands a sacrifice of facets of our identity in order to be welcomed or supported in the workplace. Suddenly, when confronted by a dream job and a desperation to ‘fit in’, we find ourselves competing to be the loudest voice in the room in an open-plan office, partaking in office sweepstakes when we might detest gambling or the animal cruelty of the Melbourne Cup or engaging in a corporate Australia Day celebration when we personally support a change of date or solidarity between all people of colour, alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. At the very minimum, the structuring of a workplace in accordance with an employer’s terms of participation excludes introverts, and at higher systemic levels, those who may not belong to Eurocentric or hypermasculine narratives of socialisation because of inherent features like race and class.

The construction of ‘social’ in the workplace becomes less about how often or enthusiastically we participate but more maliciously about how we conform to the oft narrow expressions of acceptable and selective socialisation in professional workplaces. It involves a casting aside of those who are different, as ‘anti-social’ outliers, when they are simply unattuned to the specific context of a social environment. For instance, monthly drinks events may exclude people of the Muslim faith, cultural dress-up days in celebration of events like Chinese New Year may carelessly appropriate, reduce or misrepresent the culture of employees and weekly CBD runs might risk ableism. B These incidents, often sold as employee ‘perks’ and ‘benefits’, are imperative for constructing working professional relationships. The employees who aren’t able to conform are presented with no other alternative to attain the same professional mobility as their more socially-aligned peers.

In a 2012 Ted Talk, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, related studies which showed the shift to open-plan workplaces were designed for extroverts, toxifying the productivity of introverts. Workplace social environments, for all their largely good intentions, consistently run the perennial risk of defining the horizons of socialisation, thereby limiting and excluding people who socialise differently. It is a contributing factor to the isolation and underrepresentation of non-European individuals at the upper echelons of most of Australia’s largest employers including ASX200 companies, Federal Parliament, Ministries, the Public Service and universities according to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2016 Report Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership. Luckily, the problem is not unfixable. Social life in the workplace does not exist vacuously but rather, remains irreversibly codependent with the professional facets of the workplace like collaboration, problem-solving and interpersonal skills. A socially inclusive workplace is ultimately a productive workplace and it remains commercially sensible for businesses to get this right. Employees have a right to belong, especially when we spend up to a third of our lifetime at work.