Wining and Dining 101
The unwritten rules of “business drinking”
By Tamara E. Holmes
On any given evening, Karen Alston, president of AMG Marketing Communications in Washington, D.C., might find herself out schmoozing with clients and colleagues. Having spent years in corporate America, the 40-year-old Alston is well aware of how important such social outings can be. “That’s where deals are made, promotions happen and the boss sees who you are,” she says.
Alston also is very aware that the way a professional handles drinking in business situations can make or break a career. “Many people are more comfortable discussing business over drinks,” she says. On the other hand, drinking too much or ordering a drink that is inappropriate to the occasion can give business colleagues or potential clients an unfavorable impression. “We assume we’re only going to be judged on work performance, but that’s not the way corporate America is,” Alston adds.
Because the stakes are so high, Alston and many other professionals and career strategists say it makes sense to brush up on the rules of business drinking. “Stories make it back to the boardroom,” says Keith R. Wyche, author of Good is Not Enough: And Other Unwritten Rules for Minority Professionals and NBMBAA board member. “A candidate’s name comes up for a promotion, and someone remembers when they drank too much at a business function.” Taking the time to learn when to drink, what to drink and how to handle social situations when you don’t drink can make all the difference in one’s career trajectory.
Discerning the Corporate Culture
In a large sense, the decision whether or not to drink alcohol depends on who you’re socializing with. At some companies, nobody drinks when socializing with co-workers outside of work. At others, you’re expected to have a drink with the team. And different rules apply if you’re socializing with business superiors rather than peers.
There also are certain occasions when it’s inappropriate to drink. According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management, 70 percent of human resource professionals said it was appropriate for employees to drink alcohol at a holiday party. However, only 40 percent said it was acceptable for employees to drink while dining with a client or customer. Nine percent of those surveyed said it was appropriate for employees to drink when dining with a supervisor or subordinate, and 2 percent said it was acceptable for employees to drink at conferences.
If your company has a written policy on drinking, heed it at all costs. But when it comes to learning the unwritten rules related to drinking, look to other high-performing executives in the company. If your boss or other managers are around, “never be the one to order a drink first,” says Wyche. “Let the senior leader take the lead.”
If senior leaders start off the drinking, it’s OK for you to take part if you feel comfortable doing so. In other words, know your limits. “Drinking is an acceptable way to socialize as long as you are able to be social but also maintain your professionalism,” says Stephanie Chick, a career coach and author of Deliver the Package: Simple Truths to Help Set Your Genius Free. “When you’re not able to maintain that professionalism, then you’re putting yourself in a potentially negative situation.”
Pressured to Drink?
So what happens when colleagues are suggesting a toast when you know you can’t handle another glass of wine or you don’t drink in the first place? Some people have religious or personal reasons for abstaining, while others may just not be in the mood to drink. “I once had a co-worker who was a recovering alcoholic,” says Nichole Anderson, a 40-year-old public relations specialist in Somerset, N.J. “We were in sales and marketing, and it was difficult for her to stay on the wagon because people were putting pressure on her to drink.”
There’s nothing wrong with saying no, career strategists say. In fact, if you’re unsure about the cultural climate or you’re dining with managers, it’s best to say no, Wyche advises. But it sometimes makes sense to find a way to play the game. Chick, who doesn’t drink alcohol, recently attended a networking session and asked for a glass of water so she’d be drinking along with everyone else. “The glass ends up being part of the experience,” she says. “Everyone wanted to toast the event. They had wine glasses, and I had my water glass.”
If you refuse to drink while others do, it’s important not to give any indication that you’re passing judgment on those who are drinking, Chick advises. For example, don’t tell people you don’t drink for religious reasons or you don’t drink at professional events, because they could get the impression that you’re looking down on them for drinking. “I don’t justify or rationalize why I’m not drinking,” Chick says. “It’s just what I choose to do.” However, if you are pressured to say why you are not drinking, an easy explanation is simply, “I’m the designated driver.”
Some professionals prefer to be more discreet when they substitute non-alcoholic beverages for alcohol. “I do not drink, but I usually have a Coke and pretend that it is a real drink just to fit in,” says Jim Peterson Jr., chief operations officer for Criterion Flooring Systems in Elkridge, Md. “Everyone else seems to drink, so like golf, you either play or pretend to play.”
Others know their limit, and when they’ve reached it, they quietly go to the bar and order a club soda or something nondescript. “There’s nothing wrong with faking a drink – get a Sprite or ginger ale with an olive,” says Celena Gill, a professional lifestyle and etiquette consultant in Washington, D.C. “Ask the bartender to put it in a champagne flute if you feel you have to.”
If you’re going to drink, make a practice of drinking slowly. “Get used to holding the glass in your hand without drinking, because it will make you look social but prevent you from becoming intoxicated,” says 36-year-old Cedric Mobley, a corporate communications executive for a college in Maryland. “Try to make one drink last as long as possible.”
A Drinking Education
Before you partake in alcoholic beverages in business settings, there are certain things you should know. First, avoid trying any alcoholic beverage for the first time with business colleagues because you won’t know how it will impact you.
“You should know how much you can drink before you lose coherence, and how different types of alcohol affect you,” says Mobley. “Know that drinking on an empty stomach will speed up the intoxication effect and that alcohol dehydrates you, so drinking lots of water will help keep you coherent.”
Also, pay attention to your body and your actions throughout the course of the event. “Business drinking is about networking,” Mobley continues. “Alcohol is a depressant that helps people relax their mental barriers, which can help you to build relationships more easily through casual conversation. But the same effect that lessens inhibitions also lessens judgment, so pay attention to what you are saying and how you are saying it. If you notice that you aren’t making as much sense as you normally do, or if you are talking or laughing louder than normal or sharing things you wouldn’t normally share, exchange business cards, grab a glass of water and get out of there with your dignity intact.”
Also, it’s important to drink the right thing because people form perceptions about you based on what you drink. In popular culture, some drinks convey an impression of elegance and class, while others are perceived as being crude. “Don’t drink something like a ‘Sex on the Beach’ or another drink with an obscene name,” says Wyche. “No one will say anything to your face, but I guarantee that at that next review or succession planning meeting, that will come up.”
When you choose a drink, keep it simple; wine or rum and Coke are usually safe bets. Look to your colleagues to see what they’re drinking for clues about what’s acceptable.
Another faux pas can occur in situations when the boss or company is footing the bill. In that case, don’t choose the most expensive drink on the menu, Wyche advises. “I’ve seen people at a company function where the boss is picking up the tab, and they order a Louis XIII [a brand of cognac that can cost thousands per bottle]. “I’ve seen people almost lose their job for that.”
A Networking Tool
Beyond the purpose of showing camaraderie and loosening inhibitions, social drinking can serve another purpose: It can be a conversation starter. Alston started learning about different types of wines when she noticed the drinking habits of some of her colleagues. “I was the only person ordering white zinfandel, and they would say, ‘Karen, try this, or here’s a good red wine. You might like it.’”
Today, she notices that people who know wines will ask what she’s drinking, and that often breaks the ice for further discussions. Jamie Foster, a wine educator based in Bowie, Md., agrees. “Food and wine are the great equalizers,” she says. “If you have nothing else to talk about, people will talk about wine.”
Being able to rattle off some of your favorite wines or comment on whether the one you’re drinking is light or full-bodied can give others the impression that you’re well-rounded and knowledgeable. It’s like knowing how to play golf or having an appreciation for art, Alston says.
Cultivating that knowledge can be as simple as attending a wine class or experimenting at wine tastings. Such events also will give you more of a comfort level when you’re drinking in professional settings since you’ll know different things you can order and how those choices will affect you.
Bottom line, business drinking must be looked at the same way you look at other aspects of career advancement, such as improving your skills and cultivating a professional look. “You are a brand, and you have to manage every aspect of your brand,” says Wyche. “You can do all other things well, but it takes just one bad episode with alcohol to derail your career.”