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  • Tuesday, Feb 06, 2007
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    Business drinkers walk fine line

    Workplace changes mean employees more careful at office parties

    Staff Writer

    The guiding rule, 26-year-old Emily Knight said with assurance, isn't all that complicated.

    "Don't drink until you fall down in front of your boss," said Knight, who was recently in Columbus on business with her Birmingham, Ala.-based accounting firm.

    It's her answer to questions about a potentially lethal cocktail -- one part alcohol, one part co-workers.

    If not mixed properly, the end product can be a shot of disaster.

    Always on the clock?

    Amanda Green of Columbus, a 29-year-old account service specialist at Aflac Inc., agrees that social drinkers should never exceed their limits in co-workers' presence.

    "I have heard of co-workers before getting too drunk and being 'the talk' on Monday -- such as getting into fights over stupid things, getting sick in the parking lot, not remembering how they got home, things like that," she said in an e-mail. "That's just dangerous in my opinion."

    But she's not entirely opposed to drinking with co-workers.

    "I have gone out and met up with co-workers before," she wrote. "I usually have a few drinks, but because I like to dance, I usually sweat it out and am pretty much still sober when I leave."

    She remembers still being under control when she got "good and tipsy" at her birthday party with co-workers.

    "I just had a good time," she wrote. "I wasn't sloppy drunk. I never get that way."

    Changing workplace

    Over the years, alcohol's role in the workplace has fluctuated.

    The rise of employee assistance programs in the 1970s marked the start of a social movement designed to help workers deal with alcohol addiction, explained Paul Roman, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia.

    Recovery, Roman said, was the central focus -- a belief that addressing substance abuse would have "a good, cost-effective impact" for an office.

    That changed in the mid-1980s, when the war on drugs led employers to adopt a punitive approach to alcoholism, he said.

    Today, work and alcohol are less officially aligned.

    Contracts, for example, have become more technical, more legally binding.

    "The alcohol doesn't come out until the deal is struck," Roman said.

    He added that young professionals are generally reluctant to drink in a work environment because intense career competition makes mistakes seem more catastrophic.

    Even casual negotiations over lunch and a glass of wine have become less common.

    Chris Tyra, 55, a financial consultant from Columbus, said he's had lunch with customers who will order alcohol -- but he never does the same.

    "If you're employed by a company, they don't want you drinking alcohol during the day," he said.

    The three-martini lunch is, for the most part, a thing of the past.

    "Before, it was encouraged. Now, it's frowned upon. We've criminalized (alcohol). It wasn't criminalized 20 or 30 years ago," said Brendan Flanagan, 50, a lawyer in Columbus.

    Increased social attention to driving under the influence, as well as sexual harassment, has led many companies to either ban alcohol from work-sponsored parties or adopt a stringent set of policies dictating employee behavior.

    Cody Sparks, 28, a licensed banker at SunTrust Bank in Columbus, said he has his own clear limits.

    "I know I'm not going to do it," he said. "You can always have a few at the work functions and go out with your college friends afterward."

    And 25-year-old Austin Landes, who works in accounting in Atlanta and was visiting Columbus recently, said he's careful at office parties.

    "I'll just hold back, take a few more waters," he said.

    The trend has extended to contemporary etiquette manuals.

    "Today's office parties have matured, by and large, into calmer occasions that serve as much to build morale and showcase the company as to share camaraderie," states the 17th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette," published in 2004. "If that proverbial drunken partygoer with the lampshade on his head hasn't retired, he's probably been forced out by now."

    Tipsy in transition

    Roman cited a "pretty heavy drinking group of people moving into the workplace."

    While marriage and the arrival of children can curb a person's drinking habits, work can exacerbate drinking, Roman said.

    The career world, he explained, is one driven by power and control -- traits that feed into alcoholism.

    Alcohol can give a perceived sense of control over work-related stress. The "little guy" in the office can feel like somebody big, Roman said.

    Plus, the American culture is becoming increasingly isolated.

    People can eat restaurant food, follow sports teams and watch movies without leaving the house.

    A bar, meanwhile, is one of the last venues that hasn't turned isolationist.

    "Bar drinking seems to be on the rise," Roman said.

    Co-workers who socialize can meet at a local bar -- without choosing a restaurant, driving 30 miles to somebody's house, or paying for entertainment.

    That's why it only makes sense that, after college, bar conversation often turns romantic.

    Couples, then, must decide how they will view alcohol in their life together. Women are much more likely than men to marry known alcoholics, Roman said.

    Turning Japanese

    "Even relatively benign behavior under the influence of alcohol -- laughing too loudly, talking too much, acting giddy, becoming quietly morose -- will be remembered," the aforementioned "Etiquette" warns.

    That's not the case everywhere, though.

    In Japan, places of employment regularly host nomikais, drinking parties that temporarily place workers and their superiors on the same social plane.

    While drinking is not mandatory, drunkenness is accepted -- and guests share a mutual understanding.

    "Nobody is held responsible the next day for what happens," Roman said.

    In fact, some hotels exist to give social drinkers, namely men, a safe place to stay after a night of drinking, Roman explained.

    "You're ready for work the next day and you don't have to spend a lot of money on it," he said.

    Roman said it's unlikely America's work force will ever adopt Japan's model.

    "The more you have detection efforts, the more you're going to have cover-up," Roman said. "We've got a lot of closet drinkers today."

    Roman said American culture's approach to alcohol is simple.

    "We love to drink and we hate to talk about it," he said.

    Contact Sonya Sorich at 706-571-8516 or