People First HR Services

Open your eyes, use your head before raising glass on the job

Colleen Coates

It’s a sobering reality: alcohol is still present at most work functions, from holiday parties to client lunches. While most of us realize that “liquid lunches” are passé and that getting sloshed at a company event is never (ever!) wise, it’s still unclear what is appropriate when it comes to social drinking on the job.

A recent survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) shows that this is a grey area. Respondents were asked how alcohol is perceived by their organizations at a variety of work-related activities. Among the findings, some said drinking is acceptable:

— At the office holiday party: 70 per cent

— At a meal with a client or customer: 40 per cent

— At a retirement party: 32 per cent

— At the celebration of a company milestone: 28 per cent

— At a meal with a co-worker: 22 per cent

— Never: 14 per cent

To drink or not to drink? That’s the sticky question that many professionals have to face on a regular basis, and the right choice is not always a clear-cut. Drinking alcohol just to fit in or to alleviate social anxiety is not smart, but having one or two cocktails might be OK depending on the occasion. Here are a few tips for imbibing beyond the holiday party season:

Dinner with a client? It is proper etiquette to let the client order first, and by allowing them to do so, you get to follow their lead. If they order an alcoholic beverage, it’s likely OK to do so.

But don’t feel the need to match them drink for drink and instead, keep things in moderation. Letting things get out of hand reflects badly on you and hurts your business.

Lunch with the boss? The rule of thumb once again is to follow the leader. However, remember that we spend most of our time being careful and conscientious of what we say in front of the boss, and alcohol tends to remove that filter. If you want to stay on your toes, do it by ordering a club soda with a twist of lime.

After-hours get together with the gang? Happy Hour is not time to let loose, because meeting up with your office mates is not the same as hanging out with your circle of friends. Let your co-workers order first to get a feel for what everyone’s having unless it’s beyond your normal tolerance level (such as, for instance, if the drink of choice is a round of tequila).

Job interview in a restaurant? Even if the interviewer offers you a drink, politely decline. As the candidate, you need a clear head for the important conversation about to take place. On top of this, an article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology reported that in one experiment, job candidates who ordered alcohol were viewed as less intelligent than those who ordered a soft drink.

The pitfalls of overindulging are too numerous to name here, but range from embarrassingly bad behaviour and causing your co-workers to wonder if you can be trusted to ugly sexual harassment charges. Your best bet is to find out what your company’s policy is on alcohol ahead of time and follow it. If there isn’t a set rule, then use caution and apply your own common sense.

Before you drink and let inhibitions loosen, consider the risks that having a few too many might have on your professional reputation. Look around at the successful people you know and wish to emulate professionally. How many of them drink at social functions and how much do they have? Most likely, they are able to stay in control, even when it’s an open bar.

Also, it’s good to know how alcohol affects your judgment and your personality; does it make you chatty, morose, obnoxious or flirty? That can be all the more reason to set your limit and stick to it, or avoid drinking altogether. You don’t want drinking to excess to be detrimental to your career — it could end up being the longest hangover you’ve ever had.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a Practice Leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 H1