Drinking in the Workplace

By: Emma Hickey

When the finale of AMC’s Mad Men aired in 2015, the network crunched some numbers and determined that over the course of the show’s seven seasons, 369 drinks had been consumed in the workplace. Detox.net estimated that Mad Men’s anti-hero, Don Draper, had at least 3 glasses of alcohol a day. As any viewer of the show no doubt noticed, the drinks Don pours himself are a bit bigger than standard alcohol servings, leading detox.net to estimate that Don consumes about 10 drinks a day. That’s a lot! Watching the employees of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency fix themselves a drink at their personal wet bars in the middle of the workday is among the most visually jarring parts of Mad Men. Well, that and all the cigarette smoke. Alcohol isn’t just the center of Sterling Cooper, it’s the beating heart.

The optics of it seem so old fashioned—white men in suits drinking in the comfort of their Good Ol’ Boys Club—that it can lull modern viewers into a false sense of security. We may not have solved gender inequality, racism or homophobia, a viewer might think while watching 1960’s attitudes displayed on screen, but at least we don’t drink like that anymore. But is that true? Times have definitely changed, but for both better and for worse, drinking in the workplace is still present.

The tech industry and the startup world are both known for their drinking culture. Readily available alcohol has even become one of their selling points for recruiters. It makes sense—the tech and startup spaces are populated with a lot of young people who were attracted to early stage companies because of the lack of structure, not despite it. Startup life is demanding and employees are always expected to do things outside the scope of their role. There’s no task too small for anyone at a startup to tackle, and that often involves late nights and early mornings. Because the office is where you end up spending most of your time, it makes sense that your team would want to bring some of the outside world in. I’ve spent time in four different startup offices and each one had either a keg or a refrigerator full of beer, plus games like foosball, ping pong and basketball, as well gaming consoles like a Wii or a playstation. Adding some of these leisure time comforts to the office helps keep everyone happy. They make the atmosphere lighter and they make fun accessible at any time in the day. They also feel like small forms of rebellion against the workplace status quo cultivated by older generations, but as Don Draper showed us, drinking in the workplace sort of is the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, I like that I can have a drink at work. There’s something relaxing about having even just the option to pour myself a beer during the day, and it certainly sweetens the deal when I have to settle in for a late night at the office. It also encourages my coworkers and I to spend time together over drinks when the day is over. In that way, alcohol can foster community. A drinking-friendly workplace can make people feel more comfortable and more at home when they’re at work. With alcohol as a social lubricant, it can definitely lead to team bonding and more interesting watercooler talk. In the same way that it’s important for a neighborhood to have its local watering hole where everyone can gather, a keg or a supply of beer and wine can help shape that same sense of community. Offices and teams just have to be mindful of not making alcohol the foundation of their community.

Even though drinking at work can bring people together, it can also drive them apart. Not everyone drinks, not everyone can drink all of the time, and not everyone wants to drink all of the time. The Society for Human Resources Management conducted a survey of 501 Human Resources professionals to gather data on their views regarding drinking in the workplace. The results are as follows:

“HR professionals reported that they found drinking is acceptable:

70 percent: at a holiday party
40 percent: at a meal with a client or customer
32 percent: at a retirement party
28 percent: at the celebration of a company milestone
22 percent: at a meal with a co-worker
4 percent: at a meal during a job interview
14 percent: said that drinking alcohol at a work-related event was never acceptable.”

This survey reflects a more corporate attitude than that of startups, but it’s valuable to see how people outside of the startup bubble think about drinking at work. In many ways, startups are the antithesis of corporate life, so it makes sense that this survey portrays a very different perspective on alcohol in the workplace than what we experience at startups. While those of us at startups don’t want to create the stuffy, self-serious workplace culture you might find in corporate America, we do want to create welcoming environments. An alcohol-centric environment is not an inclusive one. The challenge is to strike a balance between allowing people who want to drink to do so while making sure people who don’t drink, or don’t want to drink, have options, too.

That’s where the idea of de-centering alcohol in the workplace comes in. Drinking doesn’t need to be eliminated from the workplace altogether, but it shouldn’t be the sole engine that powers your culture. It’s hard to de-center alcohol when things have been a certain way for a while, but there are smalls steps you can take to shift that emphasis away from alcohol. If your team is toasting to an accomplishment with champagne (or prosecco because #startuplife), it will go a long way with non-drinkers to offer an alternative, like sparkling cider or soda. Even if you don’t think you have any non-drinkers in your office, or if you have one non-drinker who always reassures you not to worry about them, they’re fine, they don’t mind when everyone else is drinking and they don’t need any accommodations, you should still provide that alternative beverage. An inclusive culture is one that considers all possible needs. If you always have a non alcoholic beverage available, even when you think no one will drink it, it sends the message that yours is a workplace where anyone can feel comfortable. It allows people to feel more themselves. It changes the narrative from “drinkers welcome!” to “everyone is welcome!”

You can also de-center alcohol at work events by providing an activity for people to participate in. That way, a team bonding happy hour isn’t just about drinking together, it’s also about playing pool or shuffleboard together. Offer food too so that non-drinkers will still feel like the company has invested something in them. You don’t have to pull a Salesforce, where their CEO became one of the first in the tech industry to ban drinking at work, nor do you have to give your employees the same culture shock that Jet.com felt when they were acquired by Walmart, a company that also has a strict no-drinking on company time or dime policy. Walmart actually ended up changing their policy after awhile by allowing Jet.com to resume in-house happy hours because the Jet team identified them as an important part of company culture. Drinking can serve culture in so many positive ways, which is the exact case Jet made to Walmart, but as Salesforce noted, it can have exclusionary effects as well. As long as your office takes measures to ensure your company culture is one that has options for non-drinkers and is a place where people feel like they have the ability to turn down a drink without anyone giving them a hard time, then you’ll have found the balance between two extremes.

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