For many in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is a day of celebration and good times. In the United States specifically is usually associated with celebrating Irish traditions, where in other parts of the world it is seen as a much more of a cultural and religious celebration commemorating the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Regardless, of whether you or your employees actually believe or celebrate St. Patty’s day, across America and the world there are many parties and events celebrating the day specifically at the workplace. According to NHTSA, employers spend more than $9 billion each year in Alcohol- inspired traffic costs – including wage and liability.
There is one other thing also associated with St. Patty’s day at least in the United States– and that is the consumption of alcohol and drinking in the workplace or at workplace-sponsored events. We see ongoing examples of alcohol being brought into the workplace for special events and parties in general, and from a legal perspective it is generally understood that if you go out into a public area as a group of coworkers, then legally the rules of the workplace may still apply to you if you meet certain legal requirements.
The question at this point is whether alcohol in the workplace creates problems and issues in the workplace that could be easily avoided from the perspective of the employer and for the employees as well.
Katherine Catlos, managing partner of the San Francisco office of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, LLP says that in most situations “it depends,” but generally the “workplace can extend beyond the physical location of the workplace itself,” which could mean and in many circumstances does mean that the rules of the workplace and the responsibilities of the employer to their employees still apply. For many employers this is important to know because it means that employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees in the workplace in certain situations especially if the over serving of alcohol is involved.
In other cases the responsibility of the employer is not entirely clear and most likely nonexistent to begin with but the behavior of those who are under the influence can cause other intangible issues. Take the example of Caitlin (we changed her name to protect her identity,) who “recently had a married coworker make a pass at [her] over post-work drinks.” In her case, there was no supervisor involved in the social gathering nor was there any clear egregious acts carried out by her coworker. Caitlin describes the event as “unfortunate because now [they] are no longer friends [and] knowing his feelings towards me has caused me to no longer trust his advice or intentions when it comes to work.” She places the blame for the event squarely on alcohol, “although his feelings were probably legitimate, I don’t think he would’ve been so bold had he not been drinking.”
What is it specifically about us that creates the drive to mix alcohol and social gatherings in general with workplace duties and responsibilities? Generally, it should be pretty well understood by now that Caitlin’s story is not entirely rare.
Drinking is part of the social fabric of the way the social side of business is done at least in the United States and Europe. Alcohol often serves to loosen people up and help them relax,” says Dr. Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist who is an expert on leadership and team development. She explains that alcohol plays a role in employment related social gatherings that equates to “bonding” with fellow employees. She explained that much of the research suggests that people who have at least one close friend at work are more engaged and happier, and this can translate to higher productivity and of course profitability for the employer. In other words, there are legitimate business reasons for allowing drinking at workplace gatherings and events, such as St. Patrick’s Day celebration parties, and those reasons mostly relate to building closer social ties amongst workers.
The question then becomes, if drinking in the workplace can cause closer social ties between individuals, which can lead to better engagement, is it then a given that everyone is included. What about those that don’t drink?
“I think that I feel left out of social engagements because I don’t drink. And in some instances, I feel uncomfortable, and my coworkers feel uncomfortable for my discomfort,” explains a Washington, DC-based employee who declined to be named. She tells me that she doesn’t drink for a variety of reasons, some of them personal and some of them are profession. And, in the process of declining a drink from one of her coworkers she feels that people will trust her less, or see her as an outsider who is unwilling to participate. But was interesting about her comments to us, is that she used classic language that could be identified with in-group/out-group dynamics and issues related to social conformity. In other words, she feel the pressure to conform and pressure seems to be applied from the outside to conform to social practices which she, plainly put, does not believe in.
So then is it truly a given that alcohol consumption in workplace related events brings everyone together. At least from this anecdotal piece of evidence it doesn’t seem so, but it is clear that there are some benefits to bringing some of your employees together over a drink or two, assuming you can control the situation before disaster strikes. Of course, employers should understand that in exchange for the additional increase in social engagements, you are very likely decreasing your inclusivity. Businesses simply have to make a choice, judge their culture accurately, and determine whether the cost benefit ratio fits their business goals and aspirations.
How Can Employers Reduce Risk and Keep Everyone Safe?
There are some things that can be done to reduce risk and keep everyone safe, both from a legal perspective and a social engagement perspective as well. “Ted Devine, CEO of Insureon recommends that you “consider hiring party planning professionals” and that you always assign designated drivers, to ensure that no one drives home drunk. Ensuring that trained professionals are the ones serving your employees and driving them home is a sound idea.
Katherine Catlos expands on this advice by also recommending that employers “limit the consumption of alcohol by closing the bar early or stopping serving at [say] 2 drinks.” She also adds, that modern services and technology can be a great asset if you use it properly. For example you can offer your employees free Uber or insure that your party is held at a restaurant who are licensed to serve liquor. For employees, Catlos reminds that with the pervasive nature of social media and voice and image recording you should keep in mind that when people act unprofessionally at work, someone could be watching.
Whether you drink at your employer’s St. Patty’s party, or at the next holiday party, my personal advice to you is, be responsible.