First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Imbibing in alcoholic drinks has been a time-honored tradition in business, industry and the professions. I began my career back in the “Mad Men” epoch of the 1960s in the television broadcasting industry in which opportunities to drink proliferated. Although none of the offices in which I worked had a bar such as the one Don Draper had in his office, there were plenty of assignments that involved flowing champagne and spirits. Continuing into the 1970s, I added the publishing and public relations industries to my resume; and if you think the ‘60s were mad with drink, the following decade saw the escalation of the three-martini lunch and drinking after work with colleagues become de rigueur. I don’t know how we who worked in certain industries back then survived the era of the on-the-job alcohol-soaked brain!
In the late 1970s, heavy drinking began to decline, due in part to President Jimmy Carter’s proposed deep cut in the allowable tax deduction for business entertainment. White wine replaced the martini and other cocktails as the trendy and elegant drink for both business and social gatherings. Beer also enjoyed a slight increase in popularity. Heading into the 1980s, people in general became more cost and health conscious. They quit smoking, drank less alcohol, ate healthier and exercised more. This trend carried over into the business world. Many companies began providing free or low-cost in-house health benefits such as Weight Watchers, drug and alcohol abuse counseling, medical offices and fitness centers as well as free or discounted gym memberships and other health-oriented offsite programs to attract top talent. Instead of knocking a few back at lunchtime or after work, employees began working out. Society seemed to have gained some sense at last.
That focus on building health instead of destroying it has continued to the present, with some notable exceptions. According to a study by the Collage Group, Millennials consume more and a wider variety of alcohol than previous generations. Perhaps that is due in part to the cultures of some industries, such as advertising and technology, which promote the drinking of alcoholic beverages on the job to their employees. In particular, advertising agency J. Walter Thompson and — at least according to one account — technology company Google reportedly place value on their employees drinking on the job (although according to this New York Times article, booze is not as available at Google’s East Coast NYC facility). The thinking is that consuming alcohol increases bonding and creativity.
Wine, beer and cocktails while working! It sounds so glamorous and sophisticated! But, before you start celebrating the return to the sloshy world of Mad Men and regretting that you don’t work in an industry that pushes alcoholic consumption as part of its culture (or maybe you do), understand that these employers expect that such consumption will be moderate. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case, and if not, the irony is that the company that waved those drinks under your nose will not forgive you if your boozing becomes excessive and causes you to make a mistake at the company’s expense. Drinking with business associates, bosses, clients and coworkers can result in embarrassing behavior and slips of the tongue, lost business deals, damaged reputations, job demotions and terminations, ruined careers and litigation. Some fields suffer more than others from the free-flow of alcohol, such as the legal profession according to a New York Times article.
Let’s take a look at some schmoozing and boozing situations you might find yourself in, and how to manage them:
Bonding with Coworkers
Having access to booze on the job that is provided by your employer can seem too good to be true. And it can be both flattering and comforting to be invited to join your coworkers after work for a drink. But while another recent study concluded that drinking alcohol moderately can boost creativity, the study also found that even moderate drinking can play havoc with a person’s focus. And getting caught up in the time-consuming and expensive habit of drinking after work might not be the best tactic to pursue. Even one drink when you’re tired and hungry can result in making mistakes at work and less-thought-and-more-talk when drinking socially; both can be job or career killers. Imbibing too much alcohol with coworkers is a potentially disastrous combination that can result in gossiping, providing TMI about your personal life and spilling confidential business information. And even if those tricky situations are avoided, who wants to spend the night with their head in the toilet, the next morning with a hangover and the rest of the day at work feeling dragged out? Much better to spend one’s time in a think tank than a drunk tank.
On the other hand, to avoid seeming stand-offish, a good approach is to strike a happy balance of joining your office buds briefly toward the end of the workday — if drinking on the job is allowed — or after work for some socializing. When meeting up after work, try to arrive early to engage in lively conversation while everyone is still sober. And it’s perfectly fine to stick to non-alcoholic beverages (“I’m meeting someone for dinner,” “I have a night of work ahead of me,” “I’m driving,” and “I’ve taken (allergy) (cold) meds” are time-honored excuses), and leave after an hour or so. You’ll have made an appearance, laughed and been charming with your coworkers while staying in control and feeling confident and well. You’ll be safe driving, feel good in the morning and get to work on time and alert.
It’s also important to understand that for women a double standard still exists. Tipsy women are viewed with much more disdain. There’s still that “bad boy” syndrome that is forgiven. But, women are supposed to be more responsible and dignified. Thus, if you’re female and drink too much you’ll be held in greater contempt, even though women tend to be less offensive than men when they’ve drunk too much. And, you’ll be held as the responsible party for becoming entangled in a compromising position. This double standard is unfair, but it exists. Forewarned is forearmed.
Mingling at Networking Events
When you attend a business reception or convention you’re representing your company as well as yourself. Everything you say and do should please and reflect well on your employer. First, don’t arrive on an empty stomach; but, if you are a bit peckish head to the buffet table and get a bite to eat before mingling. Second, avoid alcohol; but if you must drink, limit yourself to two drinks if you’re a guy and one drink if you’re a gal. Sip slowly and make your drink(s) last for the duration.
Entertaining Clients / Dining with the Boss
Clients and bosses must be impressed equally, so pretend that you’re on a job interview and stick to water or soft drinks. If your client or boss brings out a special wine or champagne and seems keen on your tasting some, have one glass and sip it. Your host should not insist that you continue to drink if you have declined; if they do, they’ll be in the wrong. Stick to your decision — and principles — and continue to decline politely but firmly. Use a bit of humor, if appropriate: “If you want me to finish that (report/proposal) for you, I’d better stick to one glass of this exquisite chardonnay.” Take a look at this clever drinking dodge by former IBM employee Gordon R. Williamson in a excerpt from his book, Memoirs of My Years with IBM.
The “Almost Alcoholic”
For some people, including those who are caught up in job-related boozing, the distance between so-called social, or occasional, drinking and alcoholism can be relatively short. This becomes a greater possibility when the social drinking is done on a regular and frequent basis. The term, “almost alcoholic” has been coined by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D, and Robert Doyle, M.D., and is described in their book. As F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote at the top of this post implies, alcohol can overtake you if you’re not careful in the way you handle it. For that reason, I advise limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption in professional settings. And anyone who is at all concerned about whether he or she is drinking too much, the National Institutes for Health has an online tool that helps to assess and find help if necessary.
The Rise of Mocktail
Recently the Wall Street Journal reported on an exciting trend for non-drinkers and those who wish to avoid alcohol in business situations while retaining a sense of savoir-faire: the mocktail. These are not a kiddie drinks or something necessarily served at a campus event for underage students. Rather, these mocktails are modern, sophisticated and fun. (Mocktails in some form have been around for decades; my favorite, the Virgin Mary, for example, has long been the popular alcohol-free alternative to the Bloody Mary.) In addition, craft sodas are catching on in some circles. These creative alternatives to wine, beer and hard liquor are good news for those who must limit or avoid alcohol for health, medical, religious, cultural or personal reasons and the savvy professional who simply wishes to avoid boozing on the job or at job-related functions.
I’m not advocating total abstinence. I enjoy a glass of wine with a meal or a cocktail at a social gathering just as much as anyone else. But, I enjoy feeling in control even more, so for me mocktails are very appealing in certain situations. To stay in control of both your career and social life, it pays to make good choices with regard to schmoozing and boozing.
Until next time,
This post has been updated as of February 23, 2018