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Party etiquette: The work-life BBQ balance

You're hosting a barbecue party this summer, and you want to invite a few of your co-workers. But if you invite Anna from accounting, you'll have to invite Bob from personnel. And if you invite Bob from personnel, what about Sandy from sales?

Where do you draw the line?

As a frequent party host, New York resident Jenn Andrlik often encounters this conundrum.

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"I have such a small apartment, I have to be [selective]because I can't invite everybody from the office," she says.

Ms. Andrlik discreetly invites only her close friends from work via personal e-mail, instead of sending out group messages. And afterward, she refrains from posting pictures or any mention of her parties on Facebook, where uninvited colleagues might see them and feel left out.

"I don't want anybody to feel like they're excluded," she says.

When it comes to co-workers and bosses, figuring out who to include at private, social functions is tricky business. While you don't want a glut of guests, or certain colleagues killing the buzz , not inviting them might risk stoking tension or awkwardness at the office.

Even welcoming a single guest from work can create a sticky situation, warns Lew Bayer, president of Winnipeg-based etiquette-training firm Civility Experts.

"The issue is that if you invite one person and not the others, then you've really invited the workplace anyway because the co-worker who's invited would be inclined to talk about the event or the party," she says, noting there's a strong case to be made for keeping work and social spheres separate.

Once these two worlds collide - once a co-worker sees how you live, peeks into your bathroom, and meets your family - there's no turning back, Ms. Bayer says.

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"[Some]of the questions people should be asking is, 'Do I really want to socialize with this co-worker outside of work on a regular basis? Do I want my children exposed to them? Do I really want to know they have six pets?'... 'Do I want my co-workers to be talking about the fact that I'm spending $4,000 on a deck?'" she says.

Ms. Bayer experienced first-hand the complexities of bringing co-workers into her home earlier this year, after she invited several for happy hour in her backyard. To her shock, weeks later, she returned home to find three uninvited colleagues soaking in her pool.

"They said, 'Well, Lew, you said that we're welcome any time. We took you up on that offer,' " she says. "And I said, 'Well, everybody knows you say that kind of thing, but you still call before you come. You don't just show up.' "

She immediately pulled the plug on future unannounced visits. Sometimes, she says, "we really do want to keep our personal life a little bit private, right?"

Image and etiquette coach Donna Chevrier of Mississauga, Ont., says the social rules vary, depending on the closeness of one's relationship with co-workers and the number of people in a workplace.

If everyone knows you're particularly friendly with certain colleagues, it won't rub people the wrong way if you invite those co-workers and not others, she says. However, if you work in a small office of only a handful of people, it's only courteous - and politically wise - not to leave anyone out.

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"It's not well advised to invite people because you feel sorry for them, but by the same token, you don't want to hurt people's feelings, not just because you care about people's feelings, but also because you work there," Ms. Chevrier says.

However, she advises against asking the boss to private functions unless a friendly relationship already exists, "otherwise it's a little sort of brown-nosing, you know?"

Over the years, Franke James, Toronto author of Dear Office-Politics, has received a number of letters from individuals seeking her advice on how to deal with this dilemma.

In some cases, Ms. James says, the hesitation comes from the invitees.

For instance, one advice-seeker wrote about being reluctant to attend a luncheon for the entire department, hosted at the residence of an openly hostile co-worker.

"I've tried to be professional and at least greet her in the morning and she will not respond with even a 'good morning,' " the letter read. "I don't feel comfortable going to her home."

However, skipping the party also meant snubbing the host and potentially further damaging relations at work, Ms. James explains, noting, in the end, she advised the writer to simply go with his gut.

While hosts often fret about creating their guest lists, the paradox is that those they invite might not actually want to go, she says.

"They probably don't really want to even have to spend the time, you know, getting dressed up, going to the person's house, bringing a bottle of wine. They don't want to come," she says.

"But on the other hand, they don't want to be excluded, and so their feelings are hurt. It's human nature, right?"

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