On The Implications of "Soft" Drinks

A third of managers have seen harassment or inappropriate behaviours at work parties.

This Tuesday, the air reeked of after-work drinks and BBQs. Yes, it's that time of year again. Brace yourself for the hordes descending on your local just after half five every Friday. And, as we approach the longer nights; Thursdays, too.   

Remember learning about the Romans in primary school? Frescos of toga-swathed men and women reclining on chaise longues and being fed grapes might spring to mind. But beyond the private colonnaded courtyards, ordinary Romans were getting sozzled in "tabernae" - the classical equivalent of a pub.  
Fast-forward to 2020, and deaths due to alcohol consumption are peaking at a 20-year high for both England and Wales. Conflicting reports on drinking habits make the news every few months. From "Gen-Z are the sober generation" to "drinking culture is still integral to professional success", where should the progressive workplace stand?  
This is not just a question of preference, but a policy dilemma and vital to the protection of workers. I am, of course, referring to the recent CBI scandal, which saw senior figures at the Confederation of British Industry embroiled in a sexual harassment allegations investigation. Leaders at CBI were accused of perpetuating a toxic workplace culture; exposing sexual harassment, assaults, and substance misuse at official work events.  
It's unfortunate that it takes this particular brand of scandal to fling the "alcohol at work" conversation into the news, but there is one benefit: people are talking about it.  
Alcohol has long been the crutch of sales, finance, leadership and recruitment. Whether networking, casually socialising with colleagues, or "shmoozing" prospects - you can guarantee a quality bottle of champers has been on the table at some point.  
Yet a CMI poll found that a third of managers have seen harassment or inappropriate behaviours at work parties, with women 26% more likely to have witnessed it than men.  
As a leader, this poses the question - to what extent are you happy to be liable for the behaviour of your drunk employees? Because you are liable. It can be costly, not only for your coffers but also for your reputation. And more importantly, it might cost you the safety and trust of your teams. 
In the wake of this media buzz, HR professionals are suggesting the implementation of stronger "Work Social Events" policies.  

HR Consultant Dr Breda Cullen believes this could "save an employer a lot of stress and financial risk in the long run." Because without clarity of expectation, alcoholism in the workplace can burrow, parasitic, into the very core of your mission, eroding well-intentioned values.  
What can negative workplace drinking culture look like? Organisational anthropologist John Curran believes there are two types of workplace drinking. As told to Stefan Stern in his recent Guardian OpEd:  

  • "There is the traditional male drinking culture that is associated with power and misogyny – think Mad Men and, well, martinis. And then there is drinking as a ritualised, team-building exercise that is supposed to enhance a sense of community at work. Both of these forms of behaviour can be seen as control mechanisms. If you don’t turn up you are not a team player." 

And though many of us like to think we're immune from the pressure of crossing this invisible line, what of those of us who aren't?  

"I used to work in retail with a colleague who clearly struggled with alcoholism," says Jacob Dennis, our Head of Contract Recruitment.  


  • "He'd come in shaking, and you could smell the booze from across the room. We often had work nights out I might describe as 'heavy', in hindsight. This guy would get aggressive and verbally abusive, every time.

"He would apologise the next day, but ultimately this led to us having to let him go. In an environment where drinking culture was more ingrained, I could see that spiralling far more quickly than it did." 

I have a strong personal reaction to stories like this. As someone who has struggled with alcoholism in the past, I find it hard to reconcile casual "work drinks" with vague "Behavioural Conduct" policies. I have often felt there's one rule for work nights out, and one rule for the office.  

But is it the responsibility of the employer to protect those who, like myself, struggled not to blur those lines? It makes me wonder how many organisations are ignoring the elephant in the room, only to bring it out when disciplinaries are on the table. How many companies are clear in their expectations? How many of us fall foul of unwritten rules? 

Chief Executive Officer of the CMI, Ann Francke, recently told the BBC that colleague socials are “a great team building opportunity” but that alcohol “doesn’t need to be the main event”.  

Opinion is always divided, but many working professionals agree. Work drinks might not be the end-of-week pick-me-up we thought they were. 

Says Jo Major (She/her), co-founder of Inclusive Recruitment Foundations:

  • "I’ve witnessed alcohol & partying have absolutely devastating consequences on businesses and seen the impact that regular drinking sessions have on the #MentalHealth of recruiters." 

"I’ve seen brilliant recruiters reject jobs because they didn’t want to be a part of the party, and I’ve seen people make bad alcohol fuelled decisions that have impacted their careers (me included) or cost them their jobs."  

Given all this, is it time to "cancel" work drinks?  

Well, you might not have to. The youngest in your workforce are less likely to look fondly on a weekend of binge-drinking with colleagues. Previously hush-hush topics are now taking up space in HR meetings: from the rights of those going through Menopause, to reasonable adjustments for Neurodivergent adults.  

So, although the professional sector is currently participating in a revelatory discussion concerning DE&I, mental health and Neurodiversity... Is it all just lip service? 

It remains to be seen. But I, for one, would love to order a soft drink, and be met with nothing in response. No jibes, no heckling.

"Just a Diet Coke, please".  

Find Alex Taylor on LinkedIn.


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