Out at lunch with an ad exec, Management Today (and our host) resisted the urge to quaff a glass or two of wine. ‘Not the like the old days’, our companion lamented. Anyone who’s seen Mad Men knows about advertising’s fearsome reputation for drinking on the job. It may be fictional but tales of hardcore boozing in advertising abound – and way beyond the 60s era in which the show was set.
‘The advertising industry was built on legendary boozy lunches and whether we like it or not, alcohol is part and parcel of our industry,’ says Neil Hughston, CEO of creative agency Duke. ‘I wouldn’t dream of telling an agency department they couldn’t have a drink between the hours of nine and six, in the same way I wouldn’t force feed them a kale smoothie every morning so I hit the healthy workplace quota.’
The City has a similar reputation. For centuries the Square Mile’s wood-panelled pubs have thronged with pinstripes and bowler hats as stressed traders and bankers knocked back a few pints. It’s probably where Nigel Farage, who was a commodities trader before becoming a political insurgent, picked up his ability to look so natural holding a glass. ‘The thing we used to drink here was port,’ he said over Lunch with the FT. ‘We’d all go back to work, all crimson. That’s just what we did!’
Nowadays the booze doesn’t run so freely and there are plenty of City workers who’d sooner grab a coconut water over lunch than a pint of London Pride. It seems Lloyd’s of London is keen to formally reign in lunchtime drinking even further. In 2017 the insurance market banned its own staff (as opposed to the brokers and underwriters that work within it) from having a tipple at lunch. According to the FT, the ban is specifically for between the hours of 9 and 5, meaning workers are seemingly fine to neck a hip flask on their way to work.
Such a policy is common for jobs that involve interacting with consumers – nobody wants their hairdresser, much less their brain surgeon, to smell of a brewery. And builders, train drivers and pilots are obviously banned from boozing on the job too.
But for white collar workers that spend their day at a desk, such rules can seem a bit OTT. Closing a sale over a liquid lunch isn’t as common as it used to be, but is certainly not frowned upon in many companies. When colleagues gather for an occasional lunch out, a drop of wine or a pint of ale can ease the conversation along, and is unlikely to have any real detrimental effect on the afternoon’s work.
Some employers allow occasional drinking in the office itself. Silicon Valley giants Twitter and Yelp both provide their staff with free booze to drink at their leisure. ‘We always have a fully stocked fridge, which includes beer; we see it as one of the many perks of working here,’ says Tom Craig, co-founder of digital agency Impression. ‘The team can help themselves to free drinks at any point of the day, and it's good for when clients are in too; they like the variety, and it's a bit different to just offering someone a glass or water or a cup of tea or coffee.’
It’s easy to see why Lloyd's has brought in a ban. Half of all its internal disciplinary and grievance cases are reportedly linked with alcohol. It’s easy to overdo it - with one drink leading to three. And lots of daytime drinking can create a difficult environment for those struggling with alcoholism. The nation has long moaned about the City’s purportedly ‘reckless’ culture, perhaps a little sobriety would help reign in some of the financial sector’s excesses?
‘An outright ban may seem draconian, but from a legal perspective it is difficult to see what else would work,’ says Richard Nicolle, Employment Law Partner at Stewarts Law. ‘Consistency is important in law. One person’s "reasonable" alcohol consumption will be another’s "excessive".’
But there’s a danger that heavy-handedness could damage your relationship with staff. As one worker asked on Lloyds' intranet, ‘Will we be asked to go to bed earlier soon?’ Banning all lunchtime drinking is a signal that you don’t trust people to act professionally and know their limits.
‘I’m of the mindset that if you treat adults like adults, then they’ll behave like adults,’ adds Hughston. ‘Tomorrow lunch time I’ll be having a drink with one of my senior clients but I already know that I won’t be going back to the office drunk; one it’s unprofessional, and two I don’t want to look like a dick. I expect and trust others to do the same.’
A few more thoughts on alcohol at work:
‘The old trope of booze greasing the wheels of business is overemphasised to such an extent that alcohol is being used as a gimmick by some companies,’ says James Layfield, founder of co-working provider Central Working. ‘I'd say that any company that introduces a beer tap into the office has lost its way. Business leadership should be about providing your workforce with all the tools needed for growth, and booze should never be your strategy or asset.’
‘In our reception we have a bar and we also have a roof terrace designed for hosting socials,’ says Rob Hunter, MD at Hunter Lodge Advertising. ‘We have Thirsty Thursday every Thursday at 4:30pm where everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a beer or glass of wine at our desks. Like with anything it’s all about being responsible, but we see no problem with the odd drink in the office.'
‘As a communications agency, we’re a sociable bunch; business is often conducted over a lunch that might involve a drop or two of alcohol within working hours,’ adds Ian Hood, CEO of Babel PR. ‘As long as employees don’t overdo it and remain level headed and professional, there’s no harm done.’