Should HRDs call time on workplace booze culture?

Women in the armed forces have been threatened with disciplinary action and told to stop “sleeping around” after they reported sexual abuse according to a recent investigation by The Times.

The paper found that drinking culture played a part. One former naval officer said the complainant in one case was shunned by other recruits after reporting her case.

“She was drunk… and scared of getting kicked out for having sex, so made things up,” she said. Many women did not bother reporting sexual assault, fearing their cases fell into a “grey area”.  

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“Often this is down to alcohol as the drinking culture is still a significant problem,” added the officer.

Although this is perhaps a very extreme case, many who work in HR will be all too familiar with the problematic nature of a workplace drinking culture and the hazards therein; plenty of organisations still stick to sets of traditions and social behaviours that surround the consumption of alcohol.

Workplace drinking makes sense – to a degree. Alcohol is a social lubricant; parties and expensive wine can help to knit together new recruits and of course oil the commercial wheels of business. A big win is often still celebrated by a group of colleagues at the pub. 

Buying your team a few drinks is a gesture of goodwill; maybe an expression of gratitude. Free drinks, undoubtedly, still increase attendance at functions. In the high-octane world of the City, alcohol can also work as a pressure valve for those working long hours.

The problems start when things go too far. Drinking culture is clearly having a negative impact on many people’s mental health as well as contributing towards bullying and harassment, not least when those who don’t drink feel excluded.

How could you proceed if the CEO decides enough is enough?

First, establish if you really mean it. There’s no point committing to a hardline policy if you aren’t committed to making change in the first place or if it’s at odds with the reality of your business – it’s nothing more than window-dressing.

It may be that, for your organisation, on balance, the upsides of a responsible drinking culture outweigh the downsides, in which case shape guidance appropriately but do so appreciating the gravitas of the jeopardy in scope here.

The first duty of a company, as we have recently learnt through Covid, all too painfully, is the protection of its people, whether that’s their mental or physical health.

Second, if you’ve chosen a harder stance, clamp down on firm-sponsored drinking and stop turning a blind eye to all-day sessions whether they’re being bankrolled by the organisation or not.

Third, offer better low-alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives at firm events. A jug of warm orange juice or something fizzy isn’t good enough.

Fourth, consider designating sober team members at events. BDO has introduced a 'sober chaperone' scheme at its Christmas party, as has Linklaters.

Fifth, make a conscious effort to review and reduce the time over which alcohol is served. You could suggest enacting a drinking curfew at events, for instance – and don’t start serving champagne at 10.30am and naively expect there to be no consequence for doing so, however good an idea it may feel like at the time.

Sixth, consider bringing in bad behaviour fines. Establishing a conduct committee with the power to fine directors and senior leaders who receive final warnings about their behaviour.  

Finally, you can go the whole hog; insurers at Lloyd’s of London were banned from consuming alcohol during working hours in 2017.Adam Nicoll is director of Randstad UK