The Modern Guide to (Responsibly) Drinking at Work

pouring beer from tap into glass

Up until recently, conventional wisdom dictated that drinking at work probably wasn’t a winning strategy.

This went for both employees and their employers.

For the buttoned-up, paternal corporate cultures of the 1980s and 90s, alcohol was too risky a proposition, a potential HR minefield where the scant benefits rarely outweigh potential costs.

For employees, office drinking was strictly taboo, often perceived as a lack of discipline or sign of a troubled life at home.

But there’s good news for all you lovers of office libation – boozing in the office is back in fashion.

Drinking on the Job – A (Blurry) History

Office drinking surely had its heyday in the male-dominated work cultures of the 1950s and 60s. This is the Mad Men era, filled with marathon business lunches featuring multiple rounds of Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, or Dirty Martinis. Bleary-eyed executives lurched back to the office seeing double, and a nip of scotch in the afternoon helped stave off the shakes at the end of the day.

Starting in the 80s and 90s, attitudes began to change. Most business historians note that this shift happened to coincide when congress downsized the business meal and entertainment tax deduction, first in 1987 and then again in 1994.

(In other words, drinking at work mysteriously became forbidden as soon as Uncle Sam stopped subsidizing office booze bills.)


But in the last decade or so, there’s been a resurgence of office drinking culture.

This rebirth is largely the result of the cultural influence of Silicon Valley. These self-styled “disruptors” were intent on upending the established way of doing business, not just with new models and technologies, but with new or altered organizational norms.

All in all, the result has been more lax attitudes towards sipping the occasional adult beverage at work across all industries. But that’s not to say the modern workplace is an alcohol-soaked free for all.

As an employee, you have to decide, how much indulgence is acceptable, and do the benefits outweigh the risks? Likewise, companies have to make a similar calculus. What does a lax alcohol policy add to your culture, and what potential pitfalls must you consider?

Luckily, we’re here to help.


Benefits of Booze at Work

Alcohol is neither the devil’s fire water to be avoided at all costs nor a panacea for a lackluster company culture, but it can play a role in your organization. Here’s why you might consider loosening your standards on drinking at work.

Team Bonding

Alcohol has long been acknowledged as a social lubricant. When enjoyed in moderation, it has a tendency to lower our inhibitions, which can lead your team to form new relationships and forge new bonds. These bonds in turn result in a more engaged team.

toasting beers during meeting in conference room

Recruitment and Retention

As noted above, Silicon Valley startup cultures have created an expectation of a “fun” office environment. In house kegerators, happy hours, and beer pong tournaments are becoming more rule than exception in competitive industries.

Millennial employees especially expect an office culture that allows them to be their true selves at work. They reject the idea that they must adopt a “work self” separate and distinct from their actual personality. And if that means throwing back a few cold ones now and then at their desk, they believe that they should be allowed to do so.

So when industries compete for top talent, some degree of alcohol tolerance is considered a baseline expectation.

Integrating the occasional beverage into your culture doesn’t have to be limited to the in-house happy hour or on-site kegerator.

Creative agency Colle+McVoy created a novel way to ensure their employees accurately tracked their time, designing a kegbot that dispenses ice cold beer only if the employee has an up-to-date timesheet.

A Sign of Trust and Respect

Weaving in adult beverages into your office culture also has another advantage – it sends a message that you trust your employees to act like adults.

Employees don’t want to feel like your leadership team or HR department is acting like a cop or parent when it comes to their behavior. Trusting them to know their own limits and partake in the occasional in-office drink helps do just that.

And a funny thing happens when you expect the best out of your employees – they generally rise to meet your high expectations.


Employee Rules of Engagement

Ok, so your company just announced regular Friday happy hours and a beer pong tournament next Thursday. Time to rage, right? Not so fast. Here are a few guidelines to help you participate in the festivities and still keep your job.

Stick to Beer

Why beer? Because with an average alcohol content of 4-6%, beer should enable you to remain in control of your drinking – which is really the goal here.


Compare that to wine, which contains 11-13.5% alcohol by volume, or spirits like vodka and whiskey (both around 40% ABV).

Of course, the craft beer boom means an influx of high gravity brews. Make sure you check the label on that trendy craft beer, because it might actually have an alcohol content of 8% or more, making those two drinks feel like four.

Know Your Limits

A two drink max is a good policy for just about everyone, but alcohol affects everybody differently.

If, for instance, you know that you’re basically still yourself after one drink, but things get dicey after drink number two… maybe just stick to the one.

You want to avoid intoxication at all costs. Ever woken up the next day after a night of heavy drinking and thought to yourself… “Ugh, what did I do to embarrass myself this time?”

Now imagine that same scenario, but throw your boss or co-workers into the mix. Get the point?


One rookie mistake is to drink on an empty stomach. Downing hooch without food is a recipe for disaster.

It’s not just an old wive’s tale. A 1994 study that compared those who fasted before drinking with those who ate a modest breakfast found that subjects with food in their system had a slower rate of intoxication and a 70% lower blood alcohol level.

Never Drink and Drive

This one should go without saying, but it’s still too common of a problem.

Just don’t do it! Either appoint a designated driver or take an Uber or Lyft. The risk (to yourself and others) just isn’t worth it.

Don’t Pressure People

You might be surprised to learn that there are many people out there who simply choose not to partake. (Shocking, I know.)

Whatever the reason for their teetotaling ways, there’s a good chance it’s pretty personal. So if someone declines a drink, leave it at that. Don’t treat them like an oddity or press them on it if it seems like they’d rather not get into it.

(In all likelihood, this person has had to had to deal with the same annoying questions over and over and again, and is sick of having to justify something that really isn’t that a big of a deal.)


So there you have it. All you really have to remember is that common sense rules the day. You want to be relaxed and social without veering into darker territory. So be respectful of your coworkers, know your limits, avoid intoxication, and NEVER drink and drive.

What are some innovative ways your company allows alcohol in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below.