Do you hold a number of your business meetings at bars? Do you routinely take new recruits out drinking as part of their rite of passage in the company? Do most of your firm's social events involve happy hours or alcohol-centered parties? Is it expected that you will take clients out drinking until late at night?
If so, your company may have a drinking culture.
What's the problem with a drinking culture, you may ask. Plenty.
The abuse of alcohol can be costly. There are big concerns in terms of accidents or safety (when employees under the influence cause problems operating machinery), and lost productivity (substance abusers are 10 times more likely to miss work and are 33 percent less productive even when they are at work). In addition, the cost of replacing employees can cost anywhere from 25 percent to 200 percent of their annual compensation.
There are also higher health-care expenditures because of employee illnesses and injuries, which drive up premiums for employers. Alcohol users, like drug users, are more likely to file worker's compensation claims and injure themselves and others on the job. One survey found that 9 percent of heavy drinkers and 10 percent of drug users had missed work because of a hangover, 6 percent had gone to work high or drunk in the past year, and 11 percent of heavy drinkers and 18 percent of drug users had skipped work in the past month.
Morale is another concern. Employees can wonder what type of company they are working at when some can be drinking on the job and others have to pick up the slack. In addition, the drinking culture may be "educating" the next generation of workers.
What encourages such behavior?
Culture and availability of alcohol: Some workplaces have a culture that supports drinking during work hours. Lunch meetings may involve alcohol, happy hours are a big part of the work and celebrations or socials always have alcohol as a part of the event. One question to ask your company: Can you hold a social event without having alcohol or would no one come? If no one would come, what does that say about the culture of the company? Clearly, then, drinking alcohol has become ingrained.
Peer pressure: Especially problematic are companies where some employees, whether because of religious or other personal reasons, do not want to attend events where alcohol is served or they can't find anything else to drink at these events. These employees may feel isolated or may experience peer pressure to drink. I have heard employees express concerns that if they do not attend "meetings" at bars they will jeopardize their working relationships.
Managers' behaviors: Employees often take their cues from supervisors. Managers may be the worst culprits if they are the ones most likely to be drinking during the workday. In fact, some research reports that managers are more likely to be impaired on the job than their reports. Also, in jobs where there is limited supervision, there could be more abuses of alcohol.
Lack of policies or enforcement of policies: In some cases, employees and even managers don't even know what the company's policies are for drinking at work. Or, if there are rules, they are not being enforced. Research shows that rates of heavy, frequent and workplace drinking were significantly lower at companies that discouraged social drinking than in those that most tolerated it.
What should employers consider?
Companies should establish a program to address alcohol problems in the workplace. According to the Labor Department, there are five standard components of a comprehensive workplace substance abuse program:
A written policy statement which is consistently enforced.
Managers must be trained to understand the company's policies and procedures, to identify employee problems, and to know how to refer employees to help.
Employee education and awareness (and promotion of healthy behaviors and stress management techniques).
Employee assistance for providing help -- the company may want to establish their own employee assistance program or seek help from outside organizations for employees who need help. EAPs are generally designed to provide free, confidential short-term counseling to help with a variety of job-related and personal problems.
Drug and alcohol testing.
Some have said that alcohol is the most abused drug in America. Employers have to decide what approach they will take. Some have tried to limit the amount of alcohol during work hours. In fact, in Washington state, the policy is that "a business cannot have alcohol at the workplace during the workday, even if the containers are unopened, and employees cannot drink alcohol at work at any time during the course of their work day." This is one approach. Other companies may take other stances. Given all the problems and costs associated with drinking at work, perhaps it is time for your firm to figure out its policy and then be sure to enforce it.
Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussellrhsmith.umd.edu.