Since the #MeToo movement brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the forefront of public consciousness last year, many employers in the US and around the world have been reconsidering some of their policies and practices to reduce the likelihood of misconduct occurring or being tolerated within their organization. During last winter’s holiday season, more employers decided against serving alcohol at their office holiday parties, mindful of the risk that a drunk employee could engage in sexual harassment or other behavior that would incur liability for the organization. Others eschewed open bars in favor of drink ticket systems that limited employees to just two or three drinks, or other methods for discouraging overconsumption.
Now that summer is here, US employers are looking at another season of office parties, outings, and happy hours where these risks must be considered yet again. At The American Lawyer, reporter Meghan Tribe looks into how Big Law firms are rethinking their perks for summer associates, high-achieving law students exploring careers at the firm, who have traditionally enjoyed boozy dinners and other events over the course of their summer associate program jobs. Patrick Krill, a behavioral health consultant for the legal sector, explained to Tribe that, “In light of #MeToo movement, an open bar at a summer associate event is potentially a tinderbox of liability,” particularly since so many workplace sexual harassment claims in the industry are linked back to events with alcohol.
As an alternative, Tribe reports, some firms are redesigning their summer associate programs around events that don’t involve drinking. The itinerary for Goodwin Procter summer associates this year, for example, includes spin classes, cooking classes, and trips to the theater. The firm has also mandated anti-harassment training for all its employees (including summer associates), and will limit the availability of alcohol at work functions. Aside from the liability concerns, Goodwin Procter views its revamped summer associate program as an opportunity to communicate its culture and values, as well as demonstrate that it has gotten the message of #MeToo.
Organizations or teams planning summer events can take a few lessons from what these law firms and other companies are doing.
Companies that allow or provide alcohol in the workplace often do so in order to attract young talent with an image of a fun, friendly, work-hard-play-hard culture, but a recent study suggests that booze might not be as attractive a perk as many startup founders seem to think it is. Oregon State University’s Michelle Klampe presents some new research from OSU business professor Anthony Klotz and Serge da Motta Veiga of American University that investigated the reactions of college students and recent graduates to the availability of alcohol in prospective workplaces. finding that in fact, drinking cultures often turn them off:
“Students preparing to enter the workforce ask a lot of questions about alcohol and job interviews and the best way to navigate those situations,” Klotz said. “And generally, people are confused about how to deal with alcohol in the workplace. Not everyone finds it appealing.” …
In both studies, participants were also asked questions relating to their level of political skill, which refers to the a set of social abilities that helps them effectively understand others at work, influence others in ways that enhance their own objectives and navigate social situations with confidence. Klotz and da Motta Veiga predicted that those with high political skill are more likely to be comfortable at alcohol-based events, while those with low political skill may be unable to take advantage of the social benefits that the combination of alcohol and work provide.
The studies showed that participants with lower levels of political skill were less likely to see themselves as fitting in and wanting to work at the company when the recruiting advertising and dinner out included alcohol. “This is a specific condition where alcohol is harmful in recruiting prospective employees,” Klotz said. “However, we didn’t find any significant upside to including alcohol for the participants that showed high levels of political skill.”
The authors don’t take a position on whether a culture of drinking at work is good or bad in general, but recommend that employers be up-front with candidates about the role of alcohol in their culture in order to avoid hiring employees whose interests and values don’t align with it.
Drug use among US employees has been increasing in recent years, with marijuana accounting for about half of the American workforce’s illegal drug habits. With a tight talent market, greater mainstream acceptance, and state-level legalization of marijuana, some employers have begun relaxing their drug testing policies, abandoning the zero-tolerance approach in favor of case-by-case judgments. The biggest substance abuse problems in the US, however, are not illegal drugs but rather alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers. Opioid addiction, as well as the underlying physical health issues that lead to these drugs being prescribed, has been persuasively identified as a significant driver of the decline in American workforce participation rates, particularly among men in what ought to be their prime working years.
Even more disconcerting is that the number of US employees dying from drug- or alcohol-related causes while at work has also risen sharply in recent years. While in absolute terms, those numbers remain very small, the rapid rate of increase is cause for concern, Gillian B. White warned at the Atlantic last month:
Last year alone, the number of workers who died at work because of drug- or alcohol-abuse-related incidents increased by more than 30 percent, to more than 200. While that number may seem small, it’s evidence of how rapidly the problem is growing—less than five years ago, fewer than 70 people died from overdoses at work. Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …
In response to a wave of sexual misconduct allegations against numerous men in the media and other high-profile industries, Vox Media, which fired its own editorial director last month for sexual harassment, announced to staff last Thursday that it would not have an open bar at its holiday party this year, the Huffington Post reported. By limiting the amount of alcohol available to employees at the party (they will now get two drink tickets instead), the company aims to discourage “unprofessional behavior” and avoid “creating an environment that encourages overconsumption”:
The move keeps in line with an earlier memo that Vox CEO Jim Bankoff sent to staffers on Nov. 3, which listed a number of initiatives aimed at improving Vox’s work culture. Among other efforts, Bankoff wrote that the company would be considering “tighter policies around alcoholic beverages at company events and meetings and generally ensuring work events and interactions meet the highest standard of professionalism.”
Vox Media is by no means the only company considering scaling back on the booze at their holiday event for this reason. The Associated Press’s Marley Jay takes a brief look at what companies are doing and why:
According to a survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, only 49 percent of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events. Last year that number was 62 percent, the highest number in the decade the firm has run its survey. The number had been going up each year as the economy improved. …
Over the next few weeks, countless organizations in the US, Europe, and around the world will hold end-of-year holiday parties for their employees. While some employees are looking forward to the event, SHRM’s Dana Wilkie highlights a new survey from the staffing firm OfficeTeam that finds that only 36 percent of office workers describe their workplace holiday parties as entertaining, while 35 percent say they are no fun. Most describe their company’s events as fairly tame and not particularly extravagant, and only about a quarter of employees feel like attendance at them is obligatory.
Brandi Britton, a district president for OfficeTeam, tells Wilkie that with careful planning, employers can endure that their holiday events feel like rewards rather than obligations to their employees:
Scheduling, for instance, can be a sticking point. For instance, many companies plan parties during weekend evenings in November and December, which can be a busy time for workers who may be shopping, decorating or attending personal holiday events. …
Nothing says “startup culture” like cool perks, and nothing says “cool perks” like a cold beer with the team at the end of the day, whether served up by the office bartender or from the kegerator or beer fridge in the break room. But just as the rest of startup culture isn’t right for every company, when that culture involves alcohol, it can create problems: Take for example Zenefits, where in-office boozing was enough of an issue that the suite of reforms CEO David Sacks implemented upon taking over the company in February included a ban on alcohol.
We’ve given a lot of attention lately to the diversity challenges that can arise from hiring on the basis of “culture fit,” and here, too, alcohol can make matters worse. After all, not everyone drinks alcohol, and a company where camaraderie leans heavily on drinking together can be profoundly alienating to those who don’t. That’s why Wired’s Klint Finley thinks “it’s time for tech to rethink its relationship with alcohol”:
Most of the non-drinkers we spoke to for this article didn’t mind being around people who drink, so long as those drinkers are not drunk. What really bothers non-drinkers is feeling underappreciated. … When companies rely on alcohol to reward employees, non-drinkers often end up shorted. Nabil Maynard, a former quality assurance engineer at Dropbox, recalls last year’s company holiday party that featured several brands of fancy Scotch but few concessions for non-drinkers. “All there was was mixers,” he says. “Couldn’t they at least have bought some fancy root beers?”