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Why Drinking Culture Has No Place in an Inclusive Workspace

The work hard, play hard drinking culture of many workplaces is not just a recipe for burnout, it's a form of exclusion.

In my professional career as a Recruiter, boozy lunches are the standard way to network, cement client relationships and close BIG deals.

Early in my career, I worked alongside a legal recruiter in Sydney. Sometimes, she would head off to the private underground clubs and high end strip clubs nestled around Martin Place to meet with the city’s top Barristers for a glass of Hennessy, or five.  She’d close the deal, netting my company a small fortune in fees, but she’d have to go home at 2pm because she was too drunk to work. Our superiors allowed this, encouraged it even, because she was one of our company’s top billers, and there was no way a couple of cappuccinos in the meeting room was going to cut it. You see to be successful in this profession, you needed to gain the trust of your client, and for many Recruiters, that meant participating in drinking culture, so that you are seen as ‘one of the gang’. 

Chances are if you’re in the legal, construction, advertising, PR, financial, media, earth moving or construction game you have some variation of this tale to tell. Your industries, like mine are ones where alcohol is used to network, bond, relieve stress, cement relationships and develop new/organic business.  In these industries, sayings like ‘the real business deals are done in the bar, not the boardroom’ are common and if you’re not a big drinker, it’s not unusual to be pulled aside at a work function and told you need to drink in order to fit in. This is the work hard, play hard lifestyle where professional and private blend. Whilst some people wear this lifestyle as a badge of honour, it’s not a philosophy that should be forced on everyone who wants to advance in their career or fit in with their workplace’s culture. 

Companies that foster drinking as part of their workplace culture are essentially pressuring their employees to take part in a practice and lifestyle that is potentially harmful and may not align with their personal beliefs. I believe this needs to stop and that nobody should have to make a choice between career progression and their health or personal values. 

In Australia, after work (or Friday night) drinks are considered part of good workplace etiquette, like wearing deodorant or not cooking fish in the communal microwave. But unlike these other things, drinking is not a courtesy but a lifestyle choice, and one that fewer and fewer Australians subscribe to. For example, the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey of over 54,000 Australians found that younger generations are drinking substantially less than their predecessors. Just 14% of 18-25 year olds drink several times a week compared with 35% of people over 70. Similarly, when La Trobe University analysed data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey they found that those aged between 24 and 29 were the most likely to have reduced their alcohol in the past year, choosing to do so for work, education and family. Another key group who are more likely to refrain from drinking are those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, according to the ABC survey. 

Placing drinking at the heart of workplace culture creates barriers to entry and success for those who choose not to drink. A Muslim person who chooses not to drink for religious reasons, or a younger Australian who chooses not to drink because they come from a family where alcohol abuse and violence is common should not be forced to find coping mechanisms in order to navigate the drinking culture of their chosen profession. 

Many will say that drinking culture is just part of certain industries and cannot be removed, so it may as well be embraced. I think that’s a cop out. Industry leaders need to work harder to minimise drinking culture in order to create more inclusive workplaces. 

It is up to the leaders within our corporate companies to set the tone of workplace culture in their organisations. Whilst it’s easy to lean into the old school drinking culture, a little ingenuity is all it takes to start new social traditions that don’t revolve around alcohol. Beyond that, I believe leaders need to set an example in the drinking habits they display in the workplace to their staff and colleagues. Personally, I decided early on in my career that I didn’t want to get lit in order to close a business deal. So, I don’t. I still work with industries where workplace drinking is the cultural norm, but I respectfully decline to partake in it. I have found that if you are good at what you do, business will come regardless, and if you stick to your values, clients respect you for it. 

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