should I have blown off a family dinner to attend a work event?

A reader writes:

I thought you could help settle a dispute my husband and I just had. My boss just now invited me to a reception to a professional conference happening this weekend. I was thrilled to be asked, but politely (and apologetically) declined because we have a long-standing dinner reservation with my husband’s family and his elderly godmother, who is an amazing woman and we haven’t been able to see her in several months. Of course, both events start at exactly the same time. My husband thinks I should have blown off dinner and attended the reception; I feel my decision was correct based on the plans involved and the fact I didn’t receive much notice for the reception. Had I had something less important planned, I would have certainly skipped it. Did I just commit a career blunder? I do make an effort to attend work functions in general, and I think the higher-ups know that.

If this were a purely social question, the decision would be easy. If you accept one social invitation, you don’t cancel later if something better comes along. The plans you make first take precedence, unless you’re sick or injured or have a death in the family, etc. (This isn’t just my tyrannical opinion; this is the rule laid out in every etiquette book ever written … which I have a ridiculous shelf full of, from a 1937 copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette to a 2011 Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.)

But it’s slightly more complicated when work is involved. Even my shelf full of etiquette experts agree that business conflicts can sometimes take precedence, depending on the relative importance of the two commitments. If your company’s server is down and you’re the only one who can fix it, that probably trumps meeting a group of friends for casual drinks. But if the work need is non-urgent and non-important, your prior commitment wins out.

So the question here is:  How important was attending this conference? If it’s like every conference I’ve ever been to, I’d say … not very. But you have more information about than I do, and so only you can make that judgment call. (Although if it was crucial, I’d hope your boss would have given you more notice of it.)

In any case, if I invited an employee to attend a conference reception the upcoming weekend and was told they already had plans, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. People have lives and commitments outside of work. Reasonable managers do sometimes expect people to do things outside of normal work hours, but those things are planned for well in advance, emergencies, or flexible if they conflict with something else.

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