There’s a whiskey bar in my office—should I join in? Elaine Varelas advises how to navigate this situation

How do you handle a culture of drinking at the office bar when you're new to an organization? Is this the only way to socialize with your colleagues? Elaine Varelas weighs in

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I just started a new job and was surprised to find a bar in the office along with the standard tea, coffee, and snacks. It seems that drinking in the office—during work hours—is part of the culture here, but it makes me very uneasy. Do I join in as a way to connect with my new colleagues? Are there unwritten rules to follow? Why do companies do this? It seems so risky to me.

A: This is a risky situation, and it’s surprising your company’s human resources and legal departments have signed off on drinking during work hours on what appears to be a regular event . This is a risk for the organization’s leaders to worry about. You only need to worry about doing what is right for you, personally and professionally. If it makes you uneasy, do not feel pressure to join in. An unwritten rule most would agree with is that it will not benefit you—or anyone—to drink on the job.

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As a trend, the presence of a bar in the workplace boomed in the high tech high times. It was seen as an attempt to convey a cool, easygoing culture—but there are many other ways to achieve that end with far fewer risks. People drinking on the job carries the obvious risks of DUIs, car accidents, and any other potential injury on company property. With the lowered inhibitions of drinking and the blurred boundaries between professional and personal space, it also becomes more likely for inappropriate behavior to occur, which can create an unsafe environment for employees. Companies need to consider the impact a bar in the office might have on the psychological wellbeing of each of their employees—seeing colleagues imbibe at work may be troubling to anyone, and perhaps more so to people in recovery. For every employee who sees the office bar as their favorite company benefit, there will be someone who dislikes it for any number of reasons—and the message this sends to them won’t necessarily be positive. Some people may view it as the company lacking concern for their employees or not taking the work seriously. Encouraging drinking at work is not what’s going to set this company apart—and no doubt their insurance company would agree.

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Most employee assistance programs will also confirm that alcohol and drug abuse on the job contributes to bad behavior, including a lack of productivity. The idea of a bar in the office is often much more appealing than the reality. That’s why many companies hold a hard line of no alcohol at any company-sponsored events; others might reserve it for special events off site, but not at the office. There are organizations who may say they use beer, wine, and champagne wisely for celebrations and eliminate hard liquor. Recognizing the risks and the impact on the bottom line needs to be something that leadership and HR talks about before undertaking their approach to alcohol.

As a new employee, you are worried about not fitting in and not getting to know your colleagues when most of the socializing occurs over a glass of something harder than coffee. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker for meeting your new colleagues—you should feel enormously free to grab a seltzer from the fridge and join in the conversation, without commenting on their drinking or bringing attention to your own decision not to drink. You can join in the social aspect without joining in the beverage of their choice.

Using a bar in the workplace to convey a trendy culture or to recruit new employees is a strategy that may be the “new” version of the three martini lunch, which also had its day—and then ended. If you find yourself in this situation as an employee, stay away from the alcohol on the job and don’t ignore your personal values.