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A recent question at Academia SE elicited an answer that used the term "business optional":

In the corporate work environment it is quite common for things to not really be entirely optional. A regional term I've familiar with is "business optional," but your supervisor might say something like "[person] is going to be at this event and you should meet them," or a mentor might tell you "this will be good for your career." All of these are effectively code meaning that even though nobody is going to force you to show up, it behooves you to show up. Usually this is something that comes up for holiday parties but it's not just limited to those.

(The region was the U.S. Northeast.)

The writer explained how it could be used in an academic environment, in a comment:

It's basically the same things as a tenure track professor hearing the "suggestion" that they should look into doing more service work for their department, to enhance their tenure application package.

I tried to find a definition of the phrase and I tried googling to find the phrase in use, and came up empty, so I thought I'd ask here.

The usual requirements for documentation will not hold for this question.

Can "business optional" mean what the cited Academia participant described? Please give some examples of its use.

An idea: might it mean that the thing being described is optional, in the realm of the business world? I found several uses of "academic optional" that worked that way, e.g."The module also complements other academic optional modules."

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    +1. I've never heard the term before, but it sounds like you found your answer. Do you doubt the sources you did find? – Dan Bron May 31 '17 at 17:54
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    Ah, I had interpreted two quotes as two sources, I see that was an error/ – Dan Bron May 31 '17 at 17:57
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    The first thing I would do is try to figure out to what region "A regional term" refers. If it's, say, Japan, a simple English-language google search won't turn up anything (other than this question.) If it's limited to Ogallala, Nebraska, again, you'll not find much. FWIW, I've never heard the term (San Francisco, CA). – Roger Sinasohn May 31 '17 at 20:11
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    "Optionality" refers frequently to either stock options or computer code, sometimes to flexibility in employee perks. Rife, therefore, for misunderstanding to use it in a new and perhaps very regional sense. It may be a way to explain (about an event) to a spouse that it may be called optional but in fact it's business. Fine line here between "command performances" and mentoring. – Xanne Jun 1 '17 at 2:49
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    The person who used business optional in the referenced answer on Academia SE did call it a colloquialism and was clearly referring to a rather ironical situation where the 'option' is no real option, further clarifying (with the example on tenure) that this is a sort of subtle compulsion disguised as option -- you're right that google search of the term doesn't turn up anything conclusive, and I found that most of the search results juxtapose 'business' & 'optional' in ways irrelevant to this situation, but colloquial expressions that are mostly spoken may be missed by google search. – English Student Jun 16 '17 at 18:15
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+50

TL;DR: This looks like a highly localized usage, so localized that there is virtually no direct evidence of it available. The term is occasionally used with the straightforward meaning "at the option of the business in question (rather than mandated by some other party)," often enough that there are at least a few examples available. Possibly the more idiomatic meaning grew out of this usage.


It sounds like your informant was using the term something like

"business" optional

That is, business in scare quotes to show that optional really isn't. With this meaning, I would expect usage to look something like this:

Yeah, the holiday office party is optional—"business" optional. Last year, Fred didn't go. Oh, you don't know Fred? That's right, you started right after the New Year.

However, the only use I have been able to find evidence for of the phrase "business optional" is to mean that something is at the discretion of the business, rather than some other party. For example:

even if a bar fails to display the 51% sign as they should, it is you the CHL holder who has the responsibility of not going. Unlike 30.06, which is business optional, actual bars are an auto no-go for CHL holders. Always check the liquor license on their wall. (User comment to "CC Question!!", TexasCHLforum, August 18, 2011)

This one was from a discussion about Texas "concealed carry" (of firearms) regulations in restaurants/bars; essentially, this person is saying that concealed weapons are automatically banned by the state from "actual bars", but restaurants (which get less than "51%" of their income from liquor) can ban them (by displaying a "30.06" notice) or not, at the business's option (rather than mandated by the government).1

Business Optional Time of Use for Northern Service Territory
If your business operations allow you to shift your on-peak usage to mid-peak or off-peak hours, you may want to take advantage of our optional Time of Use (TOU) rates. (Nevada Energy informational webpage)

Here, the issue is whether the timing of a business's peak energy consumption are at the business's option or mandated by its business model/customer needs.

And another:

Microsoft automatically updates consumer PCs (and Office 365), but that doesn't work in larger enterprises, which need to ensure apps are compatible. The change is likely to be to a two-tiered cadence: consumers are continually updated, but enterprise users have a stable "long term servicing" release which only sees urgent security patches, with other updates rolled in at a more leisurely pace. "Consumers will continue to be given monthly updates, but these may be business-optional," Silver said. (Angus Kidman, "When Windows 10 will be released (And how to plan for it)", LifeHacker, Nov. 21, 2014)

And here, immediate installation of Microsoft updates is optional for businesses, but still mandated by Microsoft for individual consumers.

It also looks to me like this is the way the phrase is being used in the Guardian article DavePhD linked in a comment to his answer, though that example comes the closest to the usage under discussion as it seems to contrast "at the option of the business (RyanAir)" with either "mandated by the government" or, most tellingly, "at the option of the customer" (that latter interpretation is very similar to "at the option of the business, rather than the employee".

These uses are fairly rare, and the references aren't from the Northeast US, but I'd say that this straightforward interpretation of the term ("business optional" = "at the option of the business") is probably at least as common as the meaning "optional, but there will be CONSEQUENCES should you fail to take us up on the option".


Edited to add:

On further consideration, I think it is plausible that the wink-wink, nudge-nudge meaning developed out of the literal meaning. Folks familiar with the phrase meaning "at the option of the business, rather than mandated by someone else" could transfer it to a situation where it means "at the option of the business, rather than at the option of the employee." I would still use the phrase with caution, and a heavy dose of non-verbal cues to get your point across.


1 Text of Texas Texas Penal Code § 30.06 here, if anyone's interested.

  • Does the Northern Service usage mean we offer an optional time shift to businesses? Does the Microsoft usage mean monthly updates are available as an option for businesses, which they may choose to avail themselves of, or not? – aparente001 Jun 16 '17 at 21:42
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    Yes, that's how I would read them. The energy one means "if your business has the option of shifting the time of its energy consumption, you can take advantage of this rate" and I take the Microsoft one to mean "businesses will be able to opt-in or opt-out of monthly updates, but Microsoft will still decide on the timing for individual consumers." So the very first one contrasts "at the business's option" with "mandated by the government", the second is contrasting "at the business's option" with something like "mandated by the customers/the business model," and... – 1006a Jun 16 '17 at 21:49
  • ...the last one is contrasting "at the business's option" with "mandated by Microsoft." – 1006a Jun 16 '17 at 21:49
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    The example with Fred nails how I've (I'm the OP for the term) heard the term used. Everything else kind of confuses the matter. – anonymous Jun 18 '17 at 18:46
  • @anonymous The question asked whether the phrase can be used that way, to which I've said a very qualified yes, and asked for examples of its use, which I've provided. I looked hard for real-life examples of the Fred usage, but couldn't find any other than your own. Frankly, I was hoping I would find some, because it seems like a useful idiom. I've added a potential hypothesis connecting the way the phrase is used in the few examples available to the way you use it, and will move some explanatory text from comments to the answer. Hopefully that clears things up. – 1006a Jun 23 '17 at 19:02
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Can it mean what they described it as?

Sure.

The adjective "business" is qualifying the sense of "optional" which is intended... in their case, allegedly, the ironic sense that the business will call it "optional" but penalize failure to appear.

This is a bog standard aspect of the English language and, indeed, all adjectival use. The adjective describes which particular instance(s) of the noun is/are intended. "Business casual" isn't really casual. It's just casual for a business context. Allegedly, "business optional" isn't really optional. It's just optional compared to things where you will immediately lose your job for failure to appear.

Does it mean what they describe it as?

Eh...

Well, you already did the eugooglizing for us and came up empty so you know it's not terribly common... but I'm sure this kind of snide complaint about corporate's requirements isn't something anyone wants to document. The whole idea of optional-but-not-really-optional is that it is notionally optional but anyone with their head/heart in the right place should want to show up on their own initiative (in corporate's eyes).

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    This. This is the answer. – Dan Bron Jun 18 '17 at 14:32
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    Well, yes, it does mean what they describe it as. (I'm the OP). – anonymous Jun 18 '17 at 18:15
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    @anonymous Aha! It's like covfefe again. – NVZ Jun 22 '17 at 16:16
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I'm the person that used the term, so it strikes me that there are three aspects to this question:

  1. What "business optional" mean?
  2. How widespread is the use of the term?
  3. Will people generally get what you mean if you use the term?

For the first point, I gave an explanation of what I meant over on Academia.SE but to reiterate,

When attendance at a company event is optional, but not attending may affect your career.

There seem to be a solid answer to the the second point: the term is not very wide spread. It might have been a mea culpa on my part to use it expecting people to know it, but that's also why I provided an explanation once asked. Incipiently the underlying concept of "business optional" is fairly well known, see advice on attending company parties:

And I should note here that while I think this is BS much of the time, it’s a more reasonable expectation if you’re in a management role. The higher up you go, the more you’re expected to appear at these things, so that you don’t create the impression that you’re too important or simply don’t care to mingle with those under you.

Or Forbes for that matter:

Attend the event. Management will see your attendance and may view the event as “team building.”

I also still swear I've heard the term in a show like "Office Space" or the like, but that could just be the Mandela Effect. Conversely, it may have been a term used at the company I was employed at which could have given a false impression it was wider spread than I thought.

Finally, will people get what you mean if you use the term. It depends. I tired it out on a couple of my colleagues and it was hit or miss. Some picked up on the meaning and didn't need an explanation, others didn't care of the term. Everyone was pretty much familiar with the concept of "optional" not really being optional though.

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I would interpret the intended meaning to be, "This is an elective opportunity, however to turn it down will negatively affect how you are received". In this sense, business-optional is a euphemism for required without explicitly saying so. I believe the use of the term "business", is to imply that they are disinterested in your personal feelings towards the request, though perhaps there is some liability that makes it so the person given the ultimatum cannot require your attendance.

Consider a case like this as an example; You receive instruction to take a client out for the night. It is not considered formally a part of your work, but to turn it down will inconvenience the client and risk the potential business. Though formally this is inappropriate pressure on an employee, by calling it "business-optional" the implication is that it is in one's own self interest to consider it mandatory.

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