Your definitive guide to drinking (or not drinking) at work events

As offices reopen and holiday parties loom, you'll need to navigate your workplace's drinking culture.
Your definitive guide to drinking (or not drinking) at work events
Graphic: Karl Gustafson
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Work drinks are supposed to be a fun and easy tool for building camaraderie and boosting morale, as well as a sign that a company is cool and relaxed. That’s why boozy office parties, after-work happy hours, and even in-office beer carts, taps, and kegerators are a fixture in many industries—especially those characterized by long hours or hard labor, like construction, finance, and tech.

But for over 14 million Americans who struggle with alcohol use issues, and millions more who do not drink as a matter of personal belief or taste, these events can be stressful. Even drinkers often struggle to figure out how and how much they should imbibe during them, or grapple with perceived peer pressure to drink more than they normally would.

A few surveys conducted in recent years have found that at least one in ten people who drink at work functions believe they ended up doing something embarrassing, or even harmful to themselves or others, at these sorts of events. Silicon Valley insider and author of Taking the Work out of Networking (2018) Karen Wickre tells The Takeout that she’s seen plenty of (usually) young people in tech companies “pass out at team parties, or—equally bad—vomit it all out” after overdoing drinks.

As such, the widespread status quo that holds that employees need to show up to alcohol-fueled events to prove their loyalty or team spirit, or to get in on vital networking, merits serious critique and change. But until it shifts, experts have developed a number of useful guidelines for both drinkers and non-drinkers navigating these events. Some apply to any sort of work-related, alcohol-centric happening, while others are more situational, but they’re all extremely useful for anyone feeling antsy about their next office party, happy hour, or keg chat.

Master the art of the polite refusal

If you don’t drink then in theory work events centered on alcohol should be a breeze: You just go to them and, well, don’t drink. Usually when people offer you alcohol at events, says Dalhousie University substance use expert Niki Kiepek, they’re just trying to be kind and generous, so a polite “no thank you” will be enough to resolve the matter, no questions asked.

Most folks know there are any number of reasons people might not be drinking in general or for one night, notes Wickre, and will accept that. “It would take a real asshole to argue” over your choice, she adds.

But Roy Cohen, a career coach and the author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide (2010) who doesn’t drink because he doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, points out that some folks can get a little uncomfortable or combative around people who don’t imbibe. They often take that individual’s choice as an indictment of their own drinking—a sign of sanctimony and distance.

Usually you can mitigate any potential coworker discomfort, and the risk of subsequent career blowback, by clearly framing your choice not to drink as a personal decision, says Cohen, and not buzzkill condescension. But if you’re really worried about judgment (or being perceived as judgmental yourself), Kiepek recommends falling back on one of several widely socially accepted, or even valued, explanations for one’s choice not to drink.

“If you are driving, it is highly respectable to not be drinking,” Kiepek explains. “Or if you have family responsibilities, such as picking up the kids [after a happy hour]. Perhaps you run in the mornings… Exercise is another reason that is viewed as commendable.”

A true excuse is best, if you feel you must make one. But a white lie is fine if you think it might be necessary to protect both your choice and your future job prospects. If you really want to smooth over any potential discomfort others may feel at your non-drinking, offer to buy them a round or to act as a designated driver for those who are partaking (if you can); even though this type of appeasement and dissimulation ought never be necessary, it will certainly always be appreciated.

However, if after you politely decline a drink your colleagues continue to force the issue, then you may be involved in an overall toxic workplace culture—and it might be worth seeking new employment.

Employ the art of deception

According to one study released last year, 12 percent of people only pretend to drink at work events, by ordering dressed-up non-alcoholic beverages.

“I often order a cranberry juice and sparkling water,” says Wickre. “It looks like a cocktail.”

This is easy to do if you are at an event where you order or mix your own drinks. But even if you are at a happy hour where your co-workers are taking turns ordering each other drinks, you can just speak to the bartender soon after you walk in to make sure that they deliver a non-alcoholic option to you in each round. Most will be happy to help.

Know when to skip the party

The experts who spoke with The Takeout all agreed on one thing above all: Those who really don’t trust themselves around, or are just uncomfortable with, alcohol or heavy drinking, should just skip work events that involve booze. It’s reasonable to worry about how doing so might affect your work life, but your overall health and well-being is more important. However, skipping out on work events that involve drinking is more common than you might think; over a fifth of respondents in one survey from last year admitted to doing so. At the very least, you can skip certain events, such as informal happy hours, and make token appearances for about 30 minutes at vital or functionally mandatory meet-ups.

If you’re concerned about missed networking opportunities, Berk Celebisoy of Daisuki Coaching suggests approaching the people you would have attempted to connect with at a drinking event and saying something like, “I couldn’t go to the party the other night, but I really would like to catch up with you. So how about we go out to get coffee tomorrow?”

You can also try discreetly suggesting to HR that the company throw in a few events focused on non-alcoholic activities to create more and friendlier opportunities for yourself and others to show up, build ties, and benefit.

If you drink, play it safe

While drinkers don’t face the same judgment risks as non-drinkers, they often still have a hard time figuring out how to navigate unwritten rules about how much to consume at work events. While there is general consensus that it’s more acceptable to drink at office parties or after work happy hours than at client meetings or work meals, companies occasionally buck that norm. And some workplaces accept or even glorify drinking until you’re wasted at certain events, while others will scorn a worker who gets a little loose anywhere.

Any time you start a new job, your best bet is to play it safe at the first few work events, watching how other people behave and mirroring them conservatively until you start to build up a sense of the local drinking culture. But even if you do realize that you’re at a very permissive company, Wickre suggests that you probably shouldn’t take that as license to drink freely and frequently, because cutting loose always comes with risks, like serious embarrassment.

“There is no right or wrong” when it comes to deciding when and how much to drink, Celebisoy argues, “There are only consequences.” So you can choose which norms to follow and when, or which of the diverse guides floating around online to heed, based on knowledge of your tolerance level.

Still, to be safe, most of the experts The Takeout consulted suggest putting uniform, low, and hard limits on your alcohol intake, even if you work for a company that embraces getting twisted at parties or happy hours. A good rule of thumb is to limit yourself to two drinks per event, broken by a glass of water, and sticking to beer or other low alcohol content beverages, while strenuously avoiding hard liquor, especially shots. You should also make sure to eat beforehand so those drinks don’t hit you hard. If there are bar snacks or hors d’oeuvres available at an event, eat them if you can, as well.

Of course, Celebisoy acknowledges, it’s often easier to set a limit than to follow it, “because after the first beer things can get quite cloudy.” One survey conducted last year found that over two-fifths of respondents reported drinking more than they intended at work events because they got caught up in the flow of things.

If you have trouble sticking to your limits, Celebisoy says it may be wisest to just avoid drinking altogether. That means adopting a consistent excuse for why you don’t want to drink some nights, but aren’t giving up drinking in total, so that you aren’t always scrambling for a new line, and you can avoid tricky questions if colleagues spot you drinking at non-work events. Or it means adopting the same tactics that full-time non-drinkers use.

Encourage culture change

Unfortunately, none of this advice will eliminate all the anxiety and uncertainty around work drinks for everyone, in part because, while we can manage our own drinking, we can’t control our colleagues’ choices.

For well over a decade now, we’ve had ample research to prove what most women have always known: that alcohol-heavy work events often fuel everything from creepy and unprofessional remarks to outright sexual assaults. That’s a big part of why over half of the women responding to a survey conducted in 2018 said they never drink at work events; it’s a choice that limits their personal risk.

Increasing awareness of the unease many people feel about the presence of alcohol at work events does seem to be leading to some changes. Younger and more diverse managers especially have started to promote more alcohol-free work events, while even companies that cling to boozy parties, happy hours, or meetings have started to look into ways of limiting consumption and changing cultural norms, if only to protect themselves from liability. But cultural change is often slow and uneven at best.

For now, the best any of us can do is to scope out our surroundings, gauge our personal needs and limits, then figure out how to set boundaries that honor both.

Or, as Celebisoy puts it, “Stick to your guns.”