07/12/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

The Four Cardinal Sins of Off-Sites


Off-site events can be tremendously helpful in building a cohesive team. The act of getting out of the office can inspire employees to chat about non-work-related topics and increase feelings of closeness. Friendships often blossom and, ultimately, bonds created translate to healthy and supportive working environments. These gatherings are a win for everyone--fun for employees and a down payment on future productivity for small business owners.

That is, unless a business owner commits the four Cardinal Sins of such events. Individually, each sin can spell trouble. Together...disaster.

Sin #1: Unlimited drinks
Think back to the last company party you attended with an open bar. I'm willing to bet that the scene looked something like this:

6 p.m.: Everyone is seated nicely around a banquet table chatting quietly, wine glasses in hand.
9 p.m.: Some people have migrated to the bar to collect another round for the table. A group of employees (or spouses/friends) are getting a little rowdy; reminiscing about the last time they went out together, possibly prefacing each party story with, "Dude!"
11 p.m.: Half of the attendees (parents with small children at home and members of upper management) have already left the restaurant. Meanwhile, the other half is taking full advantage of the open bar, doing and saying things they normally would not without alcohol involved.

This can get messy, so to bypass any booze related issues at an off-site, I stick to a strict rule: one drink per person. That's it. Sounds harsh and parental, but I've attended too many business events to know that alcohol and business don't mix.

Sin #2: Lack of cross-pollination
Sad but true: cliques didn't dissolve after middle school. Every adult knows that they exist inside and outside the workplace. As a small business owner, it is your job to encourage what I like to call cross-pollination. When planning an off-site, make a point to pair a sales person with a marketing person, a HR associate with an accounting VP. Mix up ages and titles (entry level with C-level).

The reason for this is two-fold. First, it helps familiarize people who wouldn't otherwise come in contact with each other. Second, and more importantly, it can help quell negative feelings. Myths can run rampant in workplaces, especially when people don't regularly chat with one another. Sales might be mad at marketing for not promoting a certain product. Accounting might be perturbed at management for passing on an initiative. By setting people up with each other at an off-site (be it assigned seats at a table, teams at a sporting event, etc.), physical closeness can help facilitate meaningful (and often healing) conversations.

Sin #3: Selecting offensive activities (easy to do)
Most people wouldn't bring their staff to a religious or political protest because it could be perceived as offensive. That's obvious. When conceptualizing your off-site event, try to think about the not-so-obvious events that could also offend.

Rock climbing could make people uncomfortable if they are out of shape. Same goes with a 5k run or a leisurely hike. Be careful and send out surveys to your employees before choosing an activity. I recommend renting out a movie theater. Everyone loves movies and as long as you don't choose a Michael Moore film, you will be unlikely to offend.

Sin #4: Scheduling off-sites once a year
Once a year simply isn't enough. I recommend once a month. More off-sites translate to rested and supportive teams.