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A different arena

Playing smart with the CEO Add to ...

Every year as tax season ends and the warm weather begins, those office e-mails start circulating announcing the next company ball game.

Or soccer tournament. Or office picnic.

Before you know it, you're tossing baseballs with the tech guy or racing three-legged with the CEO's wife. But when the spheres of work and play overlap, the rules of behaviour get murky suddenly. Everyone knows the basics of good sportsmanship, but is it okay to strike out the boss? Can you heckle the other departmental teams? And is it smart to spike the volleyball at Edith from human resources?

The arena of office sports is fraught with such questions and concerns, says image and etiquette consultant Diane Craig, president of Corporate Class Inc. in Toronto.

More than anything else, it's important to remember that these sport outings are still work-related events, she says. While you can cuss the umpire when among friends, it's a whole other ballgame when your boss is sitting on the sidelines.

"If people let their guard down too much, that's when things derail," Ms. Craig warns. "… People still have to remember that these are business activities."

Lapses of judgment on the diamond can have lasting repercussions back in the office, she warns.

She recalls one incident involving a client company in Ottawa, where two overzealous employees became too competitive at their office baseball games. Their behaviour grew so excessive that colleagues complained and future games were cancelled. Tensions flared in the office and the two employees were reprimanded at their next performance review.

"How you play and how you interact while you play - that is being judged," Ms. Craig says. "You may do something that will affect that reputation you've been guarding so well in the office."

Take it from a boss: People who don't play well with others aren't appreciated, says Duncan Fulton, a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard, a public-affairs firm. As the company's Toronto office manager, Mr. Fulton frequently organizes sporting events for his staff; past events have included bowling, soccer and capture the flag.

Office towers can be littered with type-A personalities, he says, and the whole point of office sports is to get co-workers to relax for a change.

"The types of personalities to kick the dirt or throw the ball the other way… if you're going to be that guy, don't show up," Mr. Fulton says. "You want to have fun with these folks and there's no place for jerks in that environment."

Of course, some people are just sore losers.

Consultant Sarah Van Lange is an employee of Mr. Fulton's, and while she has no qualms with competing against her Fleishman-Hillard cohorts, she had awkward experiences playing sports with former colleagues. She recalls going bowling one day and feeling uneasy about outperforming those whose skills were lacking.

"You just don't know how someone's going to react," Ms. Van Lange says. "There is a delicate balance there between competitiveness in the office and translating that into sports outside."

Indeed, kicking the boss's butt at golf is a nerve-wracking proposition. But going out of your way to let people win can also be damaging to your office reputation, says Edmonton image consultant Joanne Blake, owner of Style for Success. Most superiors are good at sniffing out sycophants, she says, both in and out of the office.

"[Being]smarmy or brown-nosing, that kind of behaviour just smacks of insincerity," Ms. Blake says. "It could backfire and be considered a career-limiting move, actually."

On the positive side, company sports leagues are an excellent opportunity to showcase elements of your personality that might remain hidden in the office environment, experts say. That two-hour football game is a rare opportunity to win face time with the boss and score serious points.

"Participating in these kinds of sporting events has given me a deeper perspective of the people I work with and given me a deeper respect for them as a person," Mr. Fulton says. "You discover that they're actually really funny when they're not swamped at their desk."

Above all, office sports ought to be fun and light, and employees should never feel intimidated or uncomfortable, Mr. Fulton says. It's the boss's job to ensure this happens, he adds, and when sitting in the dugout, they need to relinquish some of their manager tendencies for a while.

"If the first thing you do is stop everyone in their tracks and dictate who's on what team and who's on what string, then right away you're just carrying over some kind of a power dynamic that exists in the office," he says.

"It's better for the bosses to blend into the background a little bit."

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