Why We All Hate Offsites
The reasons are as varied as the extracurriculars are lame. Here's how it's done so very, very wrong.
By Duff McDonald

(Business 2.0) – In no particular order, here are three of the worst things you can hear at the office.

From your boss: "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to let you go."

From the guy you sat next to at yesterday's meeting: "Just got back from the doctor. It's a fungus, and it's highly contagious."

From the HR manager: "Mark your calendars--we're having an offsite!"

Why does that last one strike nearly as much fear in our hearts as the first two? Because anyone who's ever been on a corporate retreat has had an experience that falls somewhere between "a series of productive meetings with a few cringe-worthy moments" and "the worst three days of my life." In fact, a recent poll by management consultant Keith McFarland showed that only about 10 percent of executives consider offsites truly valuable. Half said they aren't worth the time or money.

That, however, is as far as the empirical data goes. The rest of the case against offsites is based on anecdotal evidence--much of it so damning that the folks who agreed to share with us did so only on the condition of anonymity. Read on and you'll see why. (And e-mail your own horror stories to talkback@business2.com.)

Sticks and cornerstones may not break their bones, but they just might break their spirit. A dozen workers at a small international marketing company recently found themselves at a retreat run by experts from an "experiential learning" firm. "They came in talking about the seven cornerstones of teamwork," says one attendee, so each employee was given a pouch filled with seven colored stones that stood for concepts like sharing resources, defining roles, and communicating frequently. Whenever a participant violated a cornerstone during the exercise, others had to roll a stone at him across the table. "Not communicating? Here's a purple stone," says the attendee mockingly. "It was ridiculous. We've worked together better since that silly offsite, but it's probably because we sat around the bar afterward laughing."

It's her party, and she'll make you cry if she wants to. A former employee of a New York-based publishing house recalls how a dream retreat--a four-day excursion for 45 people in Rio de Janeiro to bring the sales team together--was actually more stressful than being in the office. The problem? The executive in charge managed the extracurricular agenda the same way she ran the 9-to-5 one: like a battalion chief. "She made us go out dancing with her until 3 a.m.," the ex-staffer says. "Then she was angry when everyone was exhausted the next day." Irritated by her troops' lack of enthusiasm, the boss ordered them all into their swimsuits after dinner for relay races in the hotel pool. "Of course, everyone was worried when her team lost," says the former employee. "No one dared beat her."

Trust fall? You betcha. I trust that you're about to fall. Deep in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, an employee of a New York management consultancy dangled her higher-ranking colleague over the edge of a 25-foot-tall climbing wall. "I don't want you bothering me anymore," she told the man she held by the wrists. "And I'm not gonna pull you up unless you promise to leave me alone." Fortunately for the company that brought her and about 200 co-workers to the forest for a day of bonding, the male colleague did indeed promise to leave her alone. She even got a promotion a few months later--but the company hasn't scheduled another retreat since.

Remember, there doesn't always have to be a booby prize. Among the pitfalls of forced togetherness: the sleeping arrangements. Consider the episode in which a multinational advertising firm brought more than 350 employees from 12 countries together for a three-day meeting in Orlando to foster cross-border teamwork. When employees arrived at the hotel, managers announced their clever plan: Everybody would bunk with a colleague from a different country. But when several Japanese women got to their rooms, they found that their suite mates were German men. Apparently the American planners had assumed that people with names like Jens and Tibor were female. "The Japanese women broke down in tears," one attendee says. "It just wasn't culturally acceptable." At another company's annual retreat, a male attendee discovered he was sharing a room with his boss--a woman 30 years his senior who "called me 'sweetie' instead of my name and, in front of a roomful of other employees, asked if I needed 'tucking in.'" When bedtime rolled around, he says, the boss "came in from the bathroom in a full-length and totally see-through nightgown. It put a whole new spin on her mothering instincts."

There's no "I" in incomprehensibly impossible initiative. At an offsite for a recently acquired subsidiary of a major advertising conglomerate, attendees were tasked with figuring out how to double revenue in three years. Problem was, the agency already had big clients in every ad category, and conflicts with the parent company's clients made that sort of sales growth virtually impossible. So a group of frustrated staffers suggested buying the firm back. "That was the only way to do it," one employee says. Execs ignored the suggestion and focused on more "reasonable" ideas. They should have listened: A year later the subsidiary had lost a third of its staff to layoffs as sales slumped under the new parent.

Duff McDonald is a freelance writer in New York.