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Talking About What Matters to Employees

Be Sane and Leave Drinking at Work to Mad Men


In the AMC Series “Mad Men,” most of the partners have bars in their offices.  The three martini lunch is alive and well.  Everyone drinks, often to excess.  And alcohol-fueled office parties often lead to disastrous consequences. Indeed, who can forget the episode in Season 3 when, during a wild office party, a John Deere lawnmower, piloted by drunken Lois, takes off the foot of a visitor from England.

In most offices, drinking of the type seen in “Mad Men” is a relic of the past.   It is rare for someone to have a single martini at a business lunch, let alone three.  And, many businesses have policies dictating that the workplace must be “substance free.”

But, when the workday draws to a close, the rules seem to change.  Work-sponsored events still often include drinking, sometimes to excess. And, just as in “Mad Men,” the results can be calamitous.  Too much drinking lowers inhibitions, leading to inappropriate and sometimes illegal behavior, particularly sexual harassment.

A 2004 study published by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that the likelihood of sex harassment increases in a workplace where there is a strong and permissive drinking culture.  The findings of this study are not surprising to lawyers who bring sexual harassment lawsuits.  In our own cases, we have seen a disproportionate number of sexual harassment cases where too much drinking has led to not enough thinking.

In order to avoid alcohol-fueled problems in the workplace, employers should consider making a few simple adjustments to policies that permit the consumption of alcohol at work events.  At work-sponsored events, unlimited alcohol should not be available.  Employees who are visibly intoxicated should not be served another drink.  Events where alcohol is being served should be limited in duration. And, drinking-games should be prohibited, as should any activity that tends to encourage employees to over-indulge.  (While this later suggestion may seem to go without saying, almost any employment lawyer can tell you about case where there were drinking games, or people were urged to do shots together.)

As an employee, you probably can’t change your workplace culture, and you may not want to do so. Having a drink with colleagues can be relaxing and enjoyable.  A conversation over drinks may also be the key to building valuable business relationships.  But, having too much to drink with your business associates is never a good idea.  Try to limit your alcohol intake at work-sponsored events by switching to tonic water or some other non-alcoholic beverage.  Make sure that you eat while you are drinking.  And, if you believe you’ve passed your limit, take a cab home.  Think of it as the Mad Men Lesson – you don’t want to lose your job, let alone your foot.

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