Considering non-drinkers could help HR craft drinking guidelines for work events

‘You’re not trying to create laws. You’re trying to steer the event,’ one former CPO says.
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· 4 min read

From Mad Men to The Wolf of Wall Street to WeCrashed, partying can seep into a company’s culture, even if the bosses aren’t orchestrating a corporate retreat with blatant Coachella overtones. As sources tell HR Brew, if libations are flowing at company events or at the office, HR teams need to provide guardrails—not to police employees, but to ensure that drinking isn’t the central focus of a workplace gathering.

By structuring events around activities that don’t involve alcohol, HR can ease unspoken burdens that some employees might be shouldering, especially if they have trauma related to alcohol abuse.

“People may have had bad experiences with alcohol in their life, not because they drink but because somebody else drinks. A lot of domestic violence [and] abuse happens under the influence of alcohol,” Smriti Joshi, chief psychologist at the organizational mental health app Wysa, explained to HR Brew.

Tactics. There are interventions, both tactical and subtle, that organizations can employ to make sure drinking doesn’t get out of hand at company functions, sources explained. At Lionrock Recovery, a substance abuse recovery platform, many employees have grappled with substance abuse issues in the past, Co-founder and Chief Communications Officer Ashley Loeb Blassingame said.

Lionrock Recovery doesn’t provide alcohol at company events, although it doesn’t forbid employees from going out and enjoying drinks afterwards. Instead, the company organizes offsites around certain activities that don’t automatically involve drinking, like escape rooms or a day at the beach. The difficulty of abstaining can be compounded when drinking is the central focus of an occasion, Loeb Blassingame said. She referenced her husband, who is 20 years sober, works in sales, and often has to contend with boozy dinners and lunches with colleagues. “If he did not want to reveal that he didn’t drink, sometimes that would be difficult,” she explained.

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If alcohol is being served at workplace functions, HR can get crafty and impose limitations on indulgence, says Loeb Blassingame. Drink tickets can work, and although it might seem like HR could have to hover around and keep tabs on everyone’s tally, that level of granularity isn’t necessary, she stressed. “You’re trying to create bumpers, you’re not trying to create laws. You’re trying to steer the event, not make it rigid.”

Under the surface. Underlying every strategy should be an awareness that alcohol means different things to different people, Joshi advised. “Workplaces have a diverse population, not [only] in terms of just race or cultures but also in terms of the mental health and emotional concerns people are bringing into the workplace.”

In implementing a workplace alcohol policy, it’s important to understand how to foster inclusion for those who don’t drink. “People overall have to feel psychologically safe,” so that someone can say, “I cannot drink and still feel included in this group that also has non-drinkers,” Joshi explained.

Though younger generations in the US are drinking less than their predecessors, 63% of adults over 21 drink alcohol, according to a Gallup survey from 2022. Non-drinkers can feel alienated when outings and occasions are distinctly centered around an activity they can’t enjoy, Joshi said. When it comes to those abstaining, HR pros can look out for “different signs that people may be displaying discomfort, distress, [or] feeling alienated when present in a certain environment,” said Joshi.

Zoom out. Alcohol should never be the endgame, Loeb Blassingame stressed. Focusing on connectedness, rather than letting loose, is a significant guardrail that can ensure adults behave accordingly, and non-drinkers don’t feel pressure to fit in. “This is about connecting with people, not connecting with alcohol,” she said. — SB

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.