Alcohol at work means being responsible, including non-drinkers

As a common perk at technology companies, alcohol is often served at office parties, networking events or seen on desks in the afternoon. It can help your company to set itself apart from corporate cubicle farms, but if not done responsibly, including alcohol consumption as a behavior in your company culture comes with certain risks. Apart from the obvious bad behavior that could happen, it can also leave non-drinkers feeling like they don't belong, they can't be themselves or that they're being judged for their choices.

Why people don't drink

It can help to know some of the reasons why your teammates might not want to drink alcohol at work or may feel uncomfortable doing so. While alcohol can be safe and fun for many people, showing empathy for those who’d rather not drink at work can make your culture more inclusive.

Here are a few reasons for not drinking to keep in mind:

They simply don't like the taste of alcohol

Investor Charlie O'Donnell isn't a fan of alcohol. On his blog O'Donnell shares some of the ways he deals with other people's assumptions that he drinks alcohol, like regifting bottles of wine or choosing non-alcoholic options for after work drinks.

For O'Donnell, it's not a big deal that he doesn't drink, but his experiences make it clear that the issue could become awkward quickly for someone who's not drinking due to one of the other reasons on this list.

Religious or cultural reasons

For some people, drinking might be forbidden or frowned upon in their religion or personal culture. Or it might simply not fit with their values.

Making people feel uncomfortable or left-out for not drinking can be disrespectful when they're making a choice based on their personal values.

Health reasons

Some people simply make the choice not to drink for health reasons. For anyone who is pregnant, focusing on losing weight, improving their diet or training for a marathon, it might simply be a personal health choice to avoid alcohol.

And don't forget the type of alcohol you serve can make a difference. For someone who enjoys a drink as much as anyone else but is gluten intolerant, if you only serve beer they're going to feel left out.

Trouble with alcohol consumption

O'Donnell points out in his blog post that although he's not battling an alcohol addiction, if he was he'd have a hard time with all the alcohol he's given. From someone handing him a beer at an event to gifts of wine after moderating a panel, people are constantly assuming it's appropriate to offer him alcohol.

Alcoholism isn't something you're likely to broadcast about yourself if you don't have to, so it can be literally dangerous to offer people alcohol without checking with them first.

Community Manager Kara Sowles points out that other reasons for not drinking might be things you want to keep to yourself, as well. Pressuring teammates to drink or explain why they won't could pressure them to announce a pregnancy they wanted to keep quiet or share details of medications they're taking that could interact with alcohol.

They don't want it to alter their behavior

When a company has to ban alcohol due to raucous office parties it's a pretty obvious clue that alcohol at work can go too far.

If alcohol is available at work, it's fair that some employees may prefer to abstain, rather than taking the risk of letting their drink do the talking.

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How to include teammates who don’t drink

But, you don’t need to entirely ban alcohol, as Tweaky.com did briefly to help the team focus. There are plenty of ways to make alcohol just one option rather than the norm, so non-drinkers won’t feel left out at team gatherings.

Here are some ideas for making office celebrations and networking events more inclusive for those who don’t drink.

Provide a wide selection of drinks.

Events powered by alcohol often have either alcohol only or a single non-alcoholic option. Even though you might count this as catering for non-drinkers, it makes not drinking alcohol unusual and can make people feel uncomfortable.

If you offer a wide range of options, you'll remove the divide between normal and not. Try having a couple of alcoholic options if you're serving alcohol and several non-alcoholic options like juice, soft drinks, and tea.

Sowles advocates providing an equal number of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks:

“The usual lineup of brand sodas are great for mix drinks, and for some attendees, but they’re not equivalent in quality to the alcohol served. Try serving ginger beer, iced tea, craft root beer, local soda or drinks that show value by being craft brewed, higher priced, or using cane sugar.”

Make non-alcoholic drinks just as prominent

Sowles also points out that event attendees are often left in the dark about what non-alcoholic beverages are available and where to find them, while alcohol drinks are displayed prominently.

She suggests mentioning non-alcoholic options any time you mention alcohol when advertising your event. She also says both types of drinks should be on display - asking people to guess what’s under the counter adds stress, especially with long drink lines. Most people will pick what they can see.

And finally, Sowles says it's helpful to keep water freely available, so people can stay hydrated without having to negotiate queues at the bar or drinks table.

Make non-alcoholic drinking fun.

Just because there's no alcohol in the office doesn't mean your after work drinks have to be boring. Try some of these fun drink ideas—the drinks that involve lots of preparation will also give your team something fun to do together while socializing.

  • Snow cones or slushies
  • Spiders
  • Smoothies
  • Iced coffees or chocolate (or hot varieties, depending on the weather!)
  • Homemade iced tea
  • Virgin cocktails
  • Non-alcoholic punch

Start with a non-drinking activity.

Phillip Collins, head of workplace services for the Australian Drug Foundation, suggests starting after work celebrations with a non-drinking activity before continuing on to optional drinks, if that's something you really want to do. That way, everyone can be involved and the optional drinking activity afterwards won't leave team members feeling excluded.

You could start with a team dinner, non-alcoholic drinks in the office, or a trivia night before moving to another venue for optional drinking. The venue change has the added bonus of making it easy for people to go home before the drinking starts without feeling awkward.

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There's no doubt alcohol is a common perk in tech company offices. But as the assumption that drinking is "normal" and expected continues to be reinforced, the cultures of companies who focus on alcohol as a perk could be shutting people out without realizing it.

Don't let alcohol make your company's culture hostile to others. With some forethought and empathy, you can make your culture more inclusive while still enjoying a beer or two after work.

Be responsible

If you decide that your culture can handle the Friday happy hour or work-related function with adult beverages, it’s good to remember a few things.

  • Promote your workplace policy about alcohol.  - Make sure people know what the code of conduct is prior to events. Michael Ellis, Head of Culture at Vinomofo - an Australian wine subscription service - talks about how they handle the delicate business of working with alcohol. “We always promote the responsible service of alcohol,” Ellis says. “Part of our induction process is about responsible drinking in the workplace."
  • Drink responsibly
  • Provide food
  • Last call - Stop serving alcohol about an hour before the end of an event.
  • Provide transportation home

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