Drinking With Co-Workers

Sexual harassment is not the only reason we should rethink pairing drinks and work.

Beer and keyboard.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Jennie describes herself as a social drinker, the kind of person who spends two hours sipping a glass of wine. But when she took a job with an American embassy overseas, she learned quickly that it was easier to pretend to not drink at all than to partake in alcohol with her work colleagues.

“If I told gross old men, almost always married, that I didn’t drink, then they would leave me alone. It was like magic. No more after-work invites to the embassy bar, or up to their rooms for wine. No more come-ons or gross remarks, or at least way fewer. It was as if they realized that they had no chance with me unless I was somehow impaired. From then on, whenever I was at the embassy, I just acted like I didn’t drink for religious reasons. I think people thought I was Mormon.”

The downside was that she could never drink in front of her co-workers—even the glass of wine she’d sometimes wish she could have. But Jennie, who asked that I not use her last name for this piece so she can continue with this strategy, counsels other young women to consider adopting that same white lie, especially if they work in industries where drinking plays an outsize role.

Why is drinking such a big part of some work cultures? Even in the wake of the #MeToo moment, many have questioned the wisdom of big alcohol-fueled work parties because of what they mean for employees’ safety, but what about the everyday drinks served up in workplaces across America? Who really loses when the bosses pass out six packs to celebrate promotions and a hard day’s work? What about a kegerator in the office fridge, or craft brews on tap in co-working spaces? It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

L., who asked that I not use her last name and whose first name is too unique to be anonymous, barely drank in college. She didn’t start “getting drunk” until she moved to Washington, D.C., and started working in politics, where she says “drinking was glorified.” Part of her job was going to receptions with unlimited drinks, and after one reception-filled night, she was invited to “a fancy lobbyist dinner” with her boss. “I was so wasted that I spent half the meal in the bathroom thinking I was going to puke at any moment.” She switched to a digital tech firm, one that “bragged about having a kegerator in the office,” and each employee was given a personalized beer mug with their name and the company logo on it.

“One of my responsibilities was to organize and facilitate a monthly panel discussion that doubled as a happy hour. I’d have to pick up the kegs during the workday for an event that started after work,” she said. “It was very hard to distinguish between work and play.”

“It definitely affected my work performance, I was hungover all the time. My brain was not operating at any capacity that it should have been,” she said.

After a DWI wound up costing her job on a political campaign, L. made the decision to give up drinking for good. She still struggles with how to handle drinks offered in workplace settings.

“My focus got a lot better when I quit. My mood was better. In general my life has been a lot more stable.  All of that would make for a better employee,” she said.

“Not everyone is going to be a low-risk drinker,” said Joseph Nowinski, a psychologist who writes about substance abuse and alcoholism. Some people fall into the category of what Nowinski calls “almost alcoholic,” where they aren’t facing an addiction, but alcohol negatively affects their work and life. Situations that combine work and alcohol—particularly situations where the drinking occurs at the office—can have serious consequences for the company, boss and employees, Nowinski said.

Nowinski says the glorification of drinking at work is part of a shift in corporate culture which invites people to put in incredibly long work days. He points to companies that offer cots in the office so people can sleep there, and provide ample opportunity to get free beer or wine in the office. “The idea of that is that it promotes this sort of team building corporate culture,” he said. “But there is a dark side to that.”

“When people socialize with co-workers, they tend to forget the ‘work’ script and think in terms of the ‘party’ script,” said Antonia Abbey, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University who writes about the effects of alcohol. Alcohol’s pharmacological effects tend to exacerbate pre-existing biases.

“Once people have a ‘theory’ about what is going to happen during an interaction, they tend to engage in a biased information search that supports their theory,” she said, which can translate into emboldened interactions, similar to the overly-forward co-workers that Jennie was wary of. Alcohol is associated with approximately half of sexual assaults, including those on college campuses which Abbey has studied, with estimates ranging from about 40 percent to 75 percent.

It’s important to make a clarification here: There is drinking with co-workers—where people head across the street to a bar, or meet at someone’s place, and drink socially. These events take place outside of work and outside of work hours; there is no expectation that you would be at work during this time, and people are generally able to opt-in or opt out of such situations.

What about when drinking happens at work, when the boss passes around a six pack or suggests a team meeting next to the office kegerator? Or what about when deals are made and networking takes place over drinks? Abbey said common expectations about drinking come into play, regardless of location, including reducing social anxiety and social inhibitions, and increasing sexual desire, risk taking, and socially inappropriate behavior.

And the employees who don’t drink—because they want to avoid drunk co-workers, to protect their own performance, or because they, like 15 million adults in the U.S., have a personal struggle with alcohol or simply because they need to drive home in an hour and wisely don’t want to guzzle a beer before they do—are left out. “It sends the message that [co-workers] have to drink alcohol to fit into this work environment,” said Abbey.

Changing the environment

Ian Mirmelstein, an advertising executive, has been sober since 2014, after a 20-year struggle with substance abuse. But he still works in an industry that had alcohol as part of its social fabric. “Think about Mad Men,” he said. ”So much of our business has historically been done over cocktails.”

Even after he quit drinking, much of what happened at his job remained centered around happy hours. “I really didn’t feel safe being at those events and trying not to drink. So I stopped going to them, and I removed myself from the situations. And my career suffered.”

It’s not just advertising. People who work in politics, finance, and at tech startups, and a host of other industries note the same focus on alcohol at working events and that networking has become synonymous with drinks. Co-working spaces like WeWork have kegs on tap next to the vats of coffee they brew. (“We monitor it really closely,” a spokeswoman for WeWork said, and noted that taps were locked on weekends and at nights—ironically, the times that drinking would be most appropriate.)

Mirmelstein learned there were other people in his situation, both those who suffered from alcohol abuse, and those who merely preferred not to drink. He formed SEAM (Sober Executives in Advertising, Media & Marketing*) this past year. This September, he organized the first-ever non-drinking happy hour at Ad Week, an annual event in New York that is famously known for its bacchanal celebrations.

“Our intention is to be at all the major events in the industry,” said Mirmelstein, and he is shaping up plans to have a nondrinking presence at CES, South by Southwest, and Cannes in France. “In some cases it will be a formal happy hour. In many cases it’s the 15–20 people who are going who are part of SEAM and connecting organically,” he said.

Mirmelstein partnered with Ashley Simon, who runs Curious Elixirs, an upscale nonbooze craft cocktail distribution company. (Simon prefers the term “non-booze” over “mocktails.”) Simon says more people are approaching her about non-alcoholic options for work events. “If you plan an event and you think it’s not going to be engaging enough without alcohol, then you’ve probably failed at planning the event,” said Simon. “It shouldn’t only work if there is booze.”

Simon noted that she’s been approached by a lot of high-powered women, particularly female entrepreneurs, who welcome a non-alcoholic option at work events.

“A huge part of their career is networking. They have to raise money and be seen. They can’t deal with having a hangover the next day, since they need to be highly productive.” Simon explains that people want to have a drink in their hands, but they don’t always want it to be alcohol. “There is a subset of people who really welcome the [non-alcoholic options], who say ‘I have way too much on my plate, but I don’t want to be the person with water,’ ” she said.

This was what Natalia Oberti Noguera had in mind when she announced an alcohol-free policy for all networking events at her Angel Investing startup. She made the decision to do so after a tech conference she attended was kicked off with an “impromptu drunk talk.”

“I said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ Women don’t feel safe when alcohol is in the workplaces and conferences.” Oberti Noguera points to a 2004 Cornell University study that found a close connection between permissive workplace drinking cultures and sexual harassment. And like Abbey’s research has shown, the boldness and loosening of inhibitions means that it’s often women on the receiving end of a drunk co-worker’s forward behavior.

Alcohol is legal, and for many people, it’s easy to consume in moderation. But it’s still considered a carefree add-on to any work function, and that is the type of mentality that Oberti Noguera is trying to change, since she is well aware of who stands to lose the most in those situations.

“Work events are so critical for networking and expanding career opportunities,” she said. “It might be easy to decide not to go to a bar, but if there is a work function or an office where there is alcohol present, it is going to be difficult to say no. When it’s about work, it’s really hard to opt out.”

Correction, Feb. 27, 2018: This post previously misidentified SEAM as Sober Executives in Advertising, Marketing & Marketing.

Rebecca Gale is a regular contributor to the Better Life Lab and an award-winning journalist covering the nexus of politics and people in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Roll Call, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Health Affairs, among other outlets.