I recently worked at a tech startup. As you can imagine, the alcohol was flowing. The gorgeous bar was always stocked and the refrigerator was so full of beer, the door barely closed. At Friday happy hours, we played endless games of beer pong, flip cup, and Mario Kart. Many happy hours were accompanied with “new hire shots”—where we initiated our newest employees with a large chalice full of Fireball whiskey. Not a shot glass. A chalice.
Personally, I enjoyed drinking with my coworkers. I bonded with people across the company—not just the marketing folks I worked with every day. On Monday morning, I was friendlier with people in other departments—from the software engineers to the sales reps.
But I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort now and then—was this atmosphere a problem waiting to happen? Did the prevalence of alcohol make any employees feel uncomfortable? Was the environment unwelcoming to people recovering from addictions? What happened if someone left the office and got into a car accident? What if a drunken employee (or even executive) felt emboldened to cross boundaries and sexually harassed a coworker? (I never saw such instances at that startup—but I still thought what if?)
What’s the middle ground between treating employees like responsible adults and ensuring a safe workplace?
There was a time when Americans drank all day. In fact, Americans annually consumed 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per capita in 1830 (By comparison, Americans drink 2.3 gallons today). A nip at breakfast. Whiskey at lunch. Ale with dinner. Much of that drinking took place at work. The U.S. Navy even offered sailors a half-pint daily rum ration until 1862.
But those days are long gone. Sure, tech startups with their dorm room culture have made alcohol at work a trendy modern perk. But not everyone is a low-risk drinker.
Alcohol in the workplace could lead to harassment or aggressive behavior—which is getting much-needed attention in the #metoo era. A study by Cornell University found a close connection between permissive workplace drinking culture and sexual harassment. It’s not hard to understand why. When people drink alcohol, inhibitions fade. An inappropriate touch. A rude remark. An abuse of power. Unwanted advances. Booze in the workplace could make them more likely.
“Alcohol disinhibits sexual behavior and aggressive behavior. That’s why there are bar fights and that’s why there’s more sexual assault in situations where people are drinking a lot,” said Joseph Nowinski, a psychologist who writes about substance abuse and alcoholism.
For employers, there are serious liability risks. If an employee drinks at work then gets into a car crash, the employer could be liable (similar to a bartender’s responsibilities).
“Bartenders are liable for monitoring how much somebody is drinking. If a bartender sees you’re drinking too much, they’re obligated to take your car keys away,” said Nowinski. “If you’re an employer providing alcohol in your workplace, you could be liable in the same way and get sued if they have an accident.”
There’s also the practical issue of employees feeling excluded if they don’t drink.
“If it’s structured to be a real social thing, then somebody who doesn’t drink may feel pretty uncomfortable,” said Nowinski.
The risks have led plenty of companies to ban drinking altogether. Companies like Zenefits and ad agency WPP recently banned booze. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff sent a terse letter to employees reminding them of the company’s no-drinking policy after seeing a keg in the office. Meanwhile, 13% fewer companies offered alcohol at holiday parties in 2017, according to a study by Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
Meeting in the Middle
Perhaps the drinking culture at Yelp can be seen as a compromise. The company has keg machines outfitted with touchscreens that help monitor consumption. Employees are allowed an endless supply of beer, but they have to register every ounce on an accompanying iPad which displays a company “leaderboard.” The thinking is that nobody wants to drink their way to the top of the list, so they’re more likely to drink responsibly.
Another compromise—move the party out of the office and into a local tavern, restaurant, or other entertainment venue. That removes the liability for the employer and allows anybody who’s uncomfortable to more easily remove themselves from the situation. It can also provide non-drinkers with something to take part in other than nursing a cocktail, like bowling or playing games.
“When in doubt,” said Nowinksi. “Take it outside.”