my company requires employees to take an annual “team-building” trip to the Caribbean

A reader writes:

Our company takes an annual trip, usually to the Caribbean. Our airfare and hotel are paid for by the company, but our food and other activities are not. As a matter of fact, we are expected to buy our bosses dinner one of the nights. When you are hired, you are told to sign a form that states if you commit to the trip and then quit the job or cannot make the trip, you are to reimburse the company for their costs.

This year, several of us have opted out of the trip for financial reasons (I spent over $350 on food last year) so we did not commit to this year’s trip. Now they are saying that it is a mandatory trip. Can they do that, force us to do someone we cannot afford to do?

I wrote back and asked what the purpose of the trip is. The response:

They want to create a feeling of team spirit.

Hahahahahahahaha!

There is nothing like creating a feeling of team spirit by forcing your employees to go on a trip that costs them hundreds of dollars.

Please pause and enjoy a hearty laugh at this, as I have.

Okay, now … Yes, your company can indeed make this trip mandatory. Whether or not they should is a different issue (hint: they should not), but as for whether they can legally require it as part of your job? Yep, they sure can.

But of course it’s a terrible idea for them to do so. First, in general, companies should cover work-related travel expenses, because it’s not fair to ask employees to bear what should be business costs. And second, the alleged purpose of this trip — to build team spirit — provides extra cause for them to cover the expenses, because even people who are inclined to be filled with team spirit tend to get a bit deflated when told that they’re going to be out $350 for the privilege, and that they’ll be fired if they don’t agree.

Now, it’s certainly your employer’s prerogative to decide that this trip is a key part of their culture-building (and they’re at least doing the right thing by being up-front about that with people when they start working there; it would be worse if they were springing it on you afterwards). They’re allowed to decide that the culture they want includes an annual trip, even an expensive one — just as they’re allowed to decide that their culture means that everyone dresses up like clowns on Fridays or that you can’t wear red or that you all have to speak in tongues after lunch. If they think that stuff contributes to the culture they want, it’s their call — and as long as they’re really clear with prospective employees before anyone accepts a job there, so be it. I don’t want to work there, but some people will. (Just like I don’t want to work in Southwest Airlines’ really effusive, bubbly culture either, but they’re entitled to decide they want that culture, and it works for them to screen me out and hire people who are aligned with their vision of a workplace.)

And in this case, your company has decided that they want people who will be excited to go on this trip every year, and will see enough value in it (and probably see it as sufficiently like a vacation) that they won’t mind covering their own food expenses. And that really is their prerogative.

As for what you can do though … I’d go to your manager and first get clarity on exactly what the situation is. Start by saying something like, “It was my understanding when I was hired that it was fine to decline the trip as long as the company knew far enough in advance that our tickets hadn’t been purchased. Is it now mandatory regardless?”

If you’re told yes, it’s now mandatory, then you can say something like this: “I understand the company intends this as a team-building trip, and I’d be glad to go. But last year my food costs were around $350, and that’s not an expense I can fit into my budget. I’d like to be able to go on the trip, but I can’t afford those costs. Is that something the company can include, or would it make more sense for me to stay here?”

If your manager says that neither of those options are possible …. well, then these are apparently the new terms of your employment, and you’ll have to decide if you want the job under these conditions. I think it’s BS to do that to you, but at that point, that’ll be the choice you’re looking at.

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