Yes, there will be an open bar at your company holiday party. Yet just because the liquor is free, should you indulge, and to what extent?  After all, the (virgin) eggnog will be free as well . . .  so will the hot chocolate. Yet this season, many hard working employees will take advantage of what they view as a well-deserved evening “on the house.” For employees who choose to indulge, the advice is: think before you drink. Here are a few things to consider.

Company Culture: Consider the Tone at the Top Before Going Top Shelf

You might work at a company where beer and wine are freely served at company functions, or you might have a workplace where the strongest drink available in any setting is iced tea. Some companies, on the other hand, routinely host cognac and cigar nights where the boss breaks out top shelf spirits to share with the team.  Knowledge of your workplace culture will provide the parameters of acceptable behavior at your holiday celebration.

Some research indicates an interesting correlation between socioeconomic status and drinking patterns. One study found that people in higher socioeconomic brackets drank more frequently, while people who earned less money simply drank more.[1] Another study examining different drinking styles among employees within a specific mid-sized company found alcohol preferences and drinking styles to be associated with specific positions within the company.[2] They found what is described as an “omnivorous” drinking style, including a wide range of drinking companions, contexts, and types of alcohol, to be associated with company status.[3]

Focus on Your Host Not the Hosted Bar

Yet beyond research correlating attitudes and drinking habits to professional rank or status, there is much more to the story when it comes to your holiday party. In deciding whether to imbibe, take your cue from your workplace culture. One factor to consider is industry-specific norms. Attitudes toward alcohol consumption will likely be different if you work in healthcare, the nutrition industry, or teach at a Christian preschool, than if you work at a brewery. 

Consider Your Audience: Ensure Going Bottoms Up Does Not Land You Belly Up

Also consider the setting—including the expected audience. Will your seasonal gathering occur in the company boardroom or your supervisor´s living room? Will attendees be employees only, or guests? How about children? The broader the range of spectators, the higher the opportunity for an employee to be viewed as a role model, or a bad influence. 

And in considering your expected audience, consider the drinking habits of those in your chain of command. Is your boss a recovering alcoholic? Does she object to drinking for moral or religious reasons? If so, conversing with her while smelling like a brewery will be something she will remember . . . and not fondly. 

If you lack personal knowledge about the private lives of your peers or superiors, you might perceive your company's attitude toward drinking through its advertised social events. If your company routinely sponsors wine tastings, note the operative word “tastings.” That doesn’t mean each person consumes a bottle. Or, if your work week office happy hour is called “Two Shot Tuesdays,” don’t have three. 

Employees who routinely go bottoms up might end up belly up in terms of their career.  Beyond consequences on your reputation, over-indulgers risk their liberty as well as their livelihood. Employees who drink and drive could be pulled over and charged with driving drunk, or fired for creating a hostile workplace or violating company policy while under the influence. 

Avoid Appearing as if You “Need a Drink”

Many people are proud teetotalers. Others worry about making other people uncomfortable with their sobriety and therefore try to blend. If you fit into the latter category and are afraid your colleagues will suspect you are there to gather evidence and provide a sober account of coworker gaffes, here is a tip. 

A routine conversation starter at a company party if you are empty handed is that you “need a drink.” Your co-workers are trying to be nice, and some might want to be social but cannot think of anything else to say. To avoid explaining that you don’t drink . . . or conversely that you suspect you have already gone overboard, use a pre-emptive strike. Carry a glass of something so people won’t constantly insist that you “need a drink.” A soda water jazzed up with a lime looks like a gin and tonic.  Cranberry juice with heavy ice looks like a Seabreeze. No one will have any idea what is in your glass.

Do Not Rely on the Wisdom of the Pocket Breathalyzer

If you suspect you might have tied on one too many, do not rely on the wisdom of the pocket breathalyzer. Sure, these stocking stuffers might be fun at parties, where someone whips out one of these gadgets and blows, before passing it around to fellow revelers who try to out do each other with their blood alcohol readings. 

Yet what many Internet-purchased breathalyzers possess in novelty they lack in utility. Not only are they often improperly calibrated and inaccurate, they also don’t proactively measure what your blood alcohol content will be if god forbid you are pulled over on the way home. And think about it, if you feel the need to gauge your level of sobriety at a party before hitting the road, how about not driving at all?  Remember that you may be below the legal limit in your state with respect to blood alcohol level, but still legally under the influence in terms of impairment.

Holiday Party Risk Management: Saving Employees From Themselves

Holiday party risk management strategies include having a bartender mix drinks instead of letting guests mix their own—for obvious reasons. Another suggestion is serving only beer and wine. Setting a drink limit is always wise, such as through distributing only two alcoholic drink tickets to each attendee while offering unlimited non-alcoholic options. Include tantalizing non-alcoholic options in addition to the usual soda, juice, and coffee, such as home-made eggnog or a decadent coffee/ hot chocolate bar, complete with a selection of holiday-themed trimmings.   

And to avoid anyone tying on “one for the road,” consider cutting off the alcohol well before the party is set to end—leaving the coffee and eggnog stations open all evening. And speaking of hitting the road, have volunteers ready to call Ubers for guests (yes, some people still do not have the app on their smart phone), and have pre-arranged signups for pre-planned carpools with designated drivers.  

And of course, serve plenty of food. Hopefully that will be the focus. Not the booze.  Employees who are prone to overindulgence might consider it better to spend the evening in a food coma than spend the night in jail.

And speaking of food, make sure you do not serve alcohol laced food in case anyone is a recovering alcoholic or otherwise might be tempted by the Jack Daniels flavored sauce, jello shots, or liquor injected fruits. Or at least have these items clearly marked to avoid unintentional indulgence. 

The list of options goes on. The bottom line is that there are plenty of ways to plan and enjoy your holiday company celebration while remaining safe, sober, and successful. Happy Holidays.

[1] Taisia Huckle, Ru Quan You, and Sally Casswell “Socio-economic status predicts drinking patterns but not alcohol-related consequences independently,” Addiction Vol. (2010): 1192–1202; doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.02931.x.

[2] Margaretha Jarvinen, Christoph Houman Ellergaard, and Anton Grau Larsen, ”Drinking successfully: Alcohol cosumption, taste and social status,” Journal of Consumer Culture Vol. 14, No. 3 (2014): 384-405 (study performed on a middle sized Danish company).

[3] Ibid.

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