Last Word

Rick Bell

Booze & Work: Shaken and Stirred to Action

Booze & Work: Shaken and Stirred to Action

I

was a little annoyed — actually I was a lot annoyed — when a friend mentioned that he was pressured to attend monthly post-work happy hour outings with his colleagues.

“I was told I need to be there because I supervise people,” he said, adding the events often extend well past happy hour.

My friend likes his co-workers and enjoys his job, and like Justice Brett Kavanaugh he likes beer. But after a long day at work he just wants to head home. Instead, the edict leaves my friend stressed out and irked because he’s compelled — attendance is not required but strongly suggested — to spend several more hours with the same people he just endured the entire day.

Booze alone doesn’t magically transform a workplace into a more productive, positive environment.

I get team building. As a manager I also understand the value in creating a bond with your staff. I’ve found that often grows organically, and a supervisor is crucial to fostering the camaraderie between employees. Supervisor or subordinate, employees should be free to choose whether they hang out together after work.

Still, there’s a bigger picture here that bothers me. It’s the implication that drinking unifies a team.

Ummm, well, maybe. If you agree, why does it have to be happy hour? There are plenty of positive post-work outings that can involve alcohol. There’s softball and bowling and team cribbage. Or what about gathering for trivia night? I mean, who wouldn’t want to meet up with co-workers for an evening of beer and Adam Sandler-themed questions?

Perhaps we’ve been conditioned over the years to believe alcohol and the workplace make for great drinking buddies. We had Hawkeye and Trapper John of “MASH” fame throwing back snootfuls with their boss, Col. Henry Blake. And ad execs from Darrin Stephens to Don Draper basked in the glory of landing an account over martinis — two olives and a twist, please.

Such stereotypes vanished through the 1980s and ’90s. Why? Let’s just blame it on uptight boomers and Gen Xers who are generally overly anxious about everything.

But over the past decade the ascent of the millennials has taken drinking and work to transparent new levels as kegerators and wine down Wednesdays pull bottles of booze out of desk drawers to transform the office kitchen into a workplace watering hole.

Be warned though, says this uptight boomer who enjoys an after-hours cocktail as much as anyone: Alcohol and work can be a slippery slope.

I’ve experienced well-intentioned “you really must be there” post-work drinkfests taking a big-time wrong turn after too many hours together, too many drinks and too few inhibitions. Instead of managing your garden-variety sober workplace-related snit at the office, you’re forced into refereeing an alcohol-fueled scrum that never would have surfaced had everyone just gone to accordion practice or home to walk Chester the dog.

Now that we’re on the cusp of another holiday season, do I need to remind you of the perils of mixing alcohol and decking the halls at work? Of course I do!

Several workplaces ago, some genius replaced our traditional white elephant gift exchange with a secret Santa. You know, pick a name then figure out what your selectee likes. In other words it gets personal, which also complicates things.

I didn’t know this person very well so I gleaned shreds of intel from co-workers. Frankly it didn’t help. I was destined to buy a Harry and David’s gourmet fruit basket or a Sammy the Singing Salmon — something totally awesome but impersonal.

Then came a last-minute tip: My recipient liked going to Mexico. Perfecto! Bueno! Each day I would sneak a little something onto their desk leading up to the big secret Santa reveal. Day One: A map of Mexico. Day 2: A lime. Day 3: A six-pack of Corona. And finally … a bottle of tequila!

I was so proud of myself, all the sleuthing and planning and secrecy only to discover later that the recipient of my secret Santa-ness was a recovering alcoholic who at the time was wearing an ankle bracelet for a DUI.

Way to go, Sherlock. Just call me clueless.

As much as I understand that a drink or two can build relationships between employees who might otherwise never socialize, beware the perils presented by alcohol at work. Booze alone doesn’t magically transform a workplace into a more productive, positive environment.

I’m not against mixing the two. Just let your colleagues choose whether they’d prefer Alex Trebek testing their trivia skills from the comfort of their couch or an obligatory night of answering “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” questions in a bar with their co-workers.


Rick Bell is Workforce‘s editorial director. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.