My mom was crying as I pulled my car out of the driveway the day after high school graduation. I was a couple of weeks away from turning 18 and couldn’t wait one more second to start my adult life. Subconsciously, I knew the only way to do that was to get out from under the influence of my parents. But whose influence was I about to be under to begin my critical transition into adulthood? This is not a thought that was going through my teenager brain at the time. Now having three decades of adulthood to reflect on this pivotal moment, I realize that this was probably one of the many thoughts that was going through my mom’s mind.
Under the Influence (of the Boss)
I was one of those college students who had to juggle school with a part-time job. It started out as a threat from my dad who was doing his best to persuade me to live at home and commute to college, “Well, if you are going to move out, you have to get a job and pay for your living expenses.” Challenge accepted, and that’s how I landed myself in the shoe department at Sears, Roebuck and Co., during my freshman year. There, under the influence of my boss (we will call her Susan), I learned how to pitch and persuade customers on shoe selections while earning substantial commissions. Unconsciously, Susan was also modeling for me how to be a successful businesswoman in a male-dominated work environment, which I came to learn involved a lot of alcohol.
Susan, was a top achiever in Sears’ shoe department, likely fueled out of necessity of circumstance being a single mom. Her drive translated into consistent top sales awards and bonuses, triumphing over her male colleagues. I admired her stylish power suits and heels, confident strides through the department store aisles, and her ability to sell the most expensive work boots with a little charm and a borderline flirtatious smile. Despite lacking a college degree, I aspired to emulate her during my formative adult years, absorbing every quality and skill she possessed, including her use of alcohol to command a room.
The Sobering Facts: Alcohol in the Workplace
If alcohol is baked into your modus operandi, you probably aren’t paying that much attention to what it’s costing your business or employees, so let’s pause for a sobering fact check:
Financial Drain: U.S. companies hemorrhage between $33 billion and $68 billion annually due to employee alcohol misuse. (Source: Vertava Health)
Productivity Plunge: Heavy drinkers experience three to eight times more absenteeism, leading to subpar work quality. (Source: Addiction Center)
Costly After-work Culture: Americans spend an average of $3,000 per year on after-work drinks; while 15 percent of employees are comfortable getting drunk in front of their boss, 10 percent think shots are appropriate during after-work gatherings, and 14 percent admit to inappropriate behavior while intoxicated. (Source: Tlnt)
Pandemic Exacerbation: COVID-19 worsened the situation. While 53 percent of remote workers claim less stress, 32 percent are more prone to drinking while working since the pandemic began. (Source: Aspen Ridge Recovery Centers)
Combine all these on-the-job alcohol statistics, and you’ve brewed the perfect concoction for a human resources nightmare. So how do you turn the workplace alcohol trend around?
Leadership Is in the Driver Seat: Opportunity for Change
I’ll never forget the day when Susan, my boss at Sears, picked me over other shoe associates to accompany her to an out-of-town regional sales meeting. As we were cruising from my small college town of Gainesville, FL, to the bustling metropolis of Jacksonville, Susan’s skillful maneuvering of her stick shift caught my admiration. We were moving along smoothly when, out of the blue, she downshifted and pulled into a gas station. I assumed it was for fuel, but she emerged with a six-pack of beer, casually placing it between us. Popping one open, she nonchalantly continued driving and offered me one, stating, “It helps me relax and gives me confidence before stressful meetings.” In a confused state of witnessing what just happened my impressionable mind was processing these markers of success: master stick shift driving and gulping down a beer before crucial meetings.
Reflecting on that story from my college job experience, though amusing now, reveals the role Susan’s leadership played in shaping my perspective on alcohol in my career. My experience is unfortunately not unique, emphasizing how leaders significantly influence workplace drinking habits. A 2019 study underscores this by revealing that when employers or supervisors organize drinking events, employees often feel compelled to join in. This connection between drinking and work poses challenges, particularly considering that 40 percent of Americans who consume alcohol tend to overindulge, making it far from an ideal scenario for most employees.
Additionally, alcohol’s capacity to reduce inhibitions lays the groundwork for a range of issues, spanning from inappropriate comments and microaggressions to sexual misconduct. Research confirms what might be expected: a clear correlation between high alcohol consumption among male employees and a workplace culture rife with sexual harassment against women. Additionally, studies show workplace alcohol consumption is linked to heightened incidents of both physical and verbal aggression.
Given everything we know about mixing alcohol with business, is it time for bosses to shift gears when it comes to celebrating success and networking effectively? During one of our Mentor SkillShare sessions I hosted through my virtual mentorship platform, INICIVOX we asked leaders in the natural products industry about managing networking at cocktail hours during trade shows. Nordic Naturals’ Brian Terry’s advice was a wakeup call, “Everybody remembers the person who gets dragged out, and that will stick with you maybe throughout your whole career. So, you don’t want one night of trying to keep up with, in some cases, some real professionals, to really ruin your reputation.”
Beyond ruining your reputation, costing you your job, creating an environment for physical and emotional abuse, and wreaking havoc on your company’s bottom line, stacks of studies have confirmed that there is no evidence that even light drinking might help keep people healthy or do no harm. What’s ironic is that within the natural products industry, an industry that values health and quality ingredients, there seems to be no caution to encouraging the consumption of potentially lethal ingredients such as ethanol, congeners, methanol and other additives and contaminants while making it the focal point of most every networking event.
So why do we give alcohol such a platform? Maybe it’s because we haven’t taken the time to brainstorm more modern ways to make networking and celebrating safer, healthier and more meaningful.
Networking and Crushing It: Sans Alcohol
On Jan. 1, 2023, I took what would soon be remembered as my last sip of alcohol. The following week I had a battery of tests scheduled with my integrative medical physician. Being haunted by the loss of family members, including my father, to Alzheimer’s disease, motivated me to determine my own genetic predisposition despite being incredibly healthy according to the basic annual exams that insurance covers. After evaluating the results of a series of tests with my doctor, I made some drastic changes in all the areas of my health that I could control, which included eliminating dairy, gluten, drastically lowering my daily saturated fat intake and eliminating alcohol from my diet. The benefits of my decision have far outweighed the challenges. After a year of no alcohol, gluten, dairy and reduced sugar, I lost a significant amount of weight, my skin is the best shape it has ever been, I’ve been well rested and migraine free for a year and my capacity to crush it with my work exceeded anything I could have anticipated.
Eliminating alcohol proved the most challenging among all my changes—not due to cravings, but because I often needed to navigate business differently. As a publicist closely associated with networking and celebrations, not having a glass of champagne in hand felt unsettling to many. Experimenting with breaking the “Mad Men” persona, I aimed to show my team that excelling in public relations doesn’t necessitate buying another round. Here are some successful ways I discovered to pair networking and celebrating without alcohol:
Elevate the Mocktail
At Pitch Publicity’s 20th Anniversary events on both coasts, we introduced the “PitchTale.” Prioritizing appropriate glassware and garnishes, we made the mocktail visually identical to a cocktail. By notifying guests in advance that it was alcohol-free, we found the “PitchTale” became the most popular drink at both events, proving that people often prefer to join the celebration with a fancy drink in hand, minus the alcohol.
Support Emerging Alcohol-free Brands
As part of the selection committee for the Summer Fancy Food Show’s “Pitch Slam” in New York City, I noticed a surge in start-up companies offering alcohol-free beverages—a trend worth both attention and investment. Among our finalists was Sayso, a women-owned company founded by Harvard Business School graduates. Co-founders, Chloe Bergson and Alison Evans created a ready-to-drink craft cocktail in a tea bag, offering a delightful mocktail in just three minutes. Now, at industry cocktail events, I carry Sayso craft cocktail tea bags with me, adding them to soda water with lime. It not only keeps me hydrated with a delicious alcohol-free craft cocktail, but also sparks conversations about Sayso’s innovative approach. Besides Sayso there are many other alcohol-free companies in the industry paving the way for healthier choices. Consider offering them the spotlight at your next event, showcasing how botanical and non-alcoholic brews can enhance networking experiences.
Grow Leaders, Ditch the Drinks
Lead by example as the boss—don’t drink and observe the impact. The most intriguing result of my year-long experiment with alcohol abstinence was also the most straightforward: By choosing not to drink as the leader, my team members and clients either followed suit or significantly reduced their alcohol intake. As a leader, your influence extends to those working for you, following you, and engaging in business with you. They are watching closely, possibly aspiring to emulate you. The simplest way to initiate cultural change in any setting is to set the example and downplay the importance of alcohol in business.
My boss, Susan from Sears, inadvertently impressed upon me the significance of alcohol in my future career. When she gifted me elegant wine glasses for my 21st birthday, it symbolized adulthood and the essential role of alcohol in my success. Now, as a leader having personally mentored more than 50 young professionals in my two-decade tenure at Pitch Publicity, I grasp the profound impact I wield over their lives and careers, and completely understand my mom’s tears that day as I departed on my journey to adulting. In business, our team members become a significant part of our lives, often more than our families. As leaders, seemingly inconsequential decisions, like ordering another round of drinks after a demanding day, can make lasting impressions on the success and well-being of those we lead. NIE
Amy Summers, founder and president of Pitch Publicity, has three decades of experience working with major clients in the natural products industry to increase national publicity exposure across all mass media outlets, while also developing key strategic communication strategies. As a pioneer in remote work and virtual mentorship, she launched INICIVOX to help individuals improve a wide-range of soft skills centered on the complexity of communications. Her influential career has garnered her recognition as a PR News Top Women Awards Honoree in the Business Entrepreneurs category, acknowledging her unwavering dedication to the public relations profession. Headquartered in New York City, Summers is committed to supporting and nurturing the growth of the natural products industry that has served her well throughout her career. Learn more at: www.pitchpublicitynyc.com and www.INICIVOX.com.