“We don’t feel comfortable drinking when you aren’t,” co-workers say to a remote worker who only sees them in social settings.
Q: I stopped drinking more than 25 years ago. I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s a family disease. While not drinking is positive in my personal life, it causes me heartburn at work. I work remotely and see my colleagues only on social occasions, such as after training courses or client dinners.
There can be a lot of drinking at these events, and howls of protest rise each time I decline a cocktail or glass of wine. The protests get worse as the evening goes on. They’ll say: “We don’t feel comfortable drinking when you aren’t.” Can you provide any suggestions on how to handle this without lying, revealing too much about my personal life, or alienating my colleagues?
A: It is, of course, a shame that anybody has to feel put on the defensive for declining a drink.
All the experts I spoke to suggested that as soon as you arrive in such situations, get a beverage in your hand: say, a sparkling water with a lime in it, or some other ambiguous-looking nonalcoholic drink. This may not eliminate every offer or exhortation, but it should minimize the invitation an empty hand presents.
Next, come up with a single, decisive line to deliver when the issue pops up. I understand the reluctance to lie, but I’d say it’s perfectly fine to offer some mild diversionary fib: an allergy, extreme dislike of the taste, whatever. The goal is some sort of benign reason that cuts things off more than “no, thanks” does. And then, in essentially the same breath, change the subject: “Thanks, I can’t, my body doesn’t react well to alcohol — but I’ve been meaning to ask, how did your Penske presentation go?” Most people are perfectly happy to get to their real favorite subject: themselves.
In addition, have an exit strategy, said Sarah Allen Benton, a founder of Benton Behavioral Health Consulting. Decide in advance how long you’ll stay and stick to it. It may help to enlist a trusted colleague, she added.
Finally, remember that at any given party, “the truth is there are other people there who don’t want to drink, either,” Benton said. Nondrinkers can become overly self-conscious about going against the grain. But often the majority of imbibers are “really concerned more with their own drinking than with our drinking or not,” she said.
Q: I work at a nonprofit with fewer than 10 employees, where we all need to pull our weight. Recently, there have been several instances of a particular colleague getting so drunk on weeknights that he can’t make it to work until the following afternoon, if at all. I know that he is hung over, not sick, because he has admitted it in emails canceling meetings with me.
This colleague has always been a heavy drinker and has alcoholism in his family; I now wonder if he is transitioning from being a functioning alcoholic to a nonfunctioning one. Should I forward the emails he sent me to the boss so she has evidence of the reason for his absences? Should I bring up alcohol abuse with him?
I would think that our boss is aware of this issue, given how small our office is, and I don’t understand why she hasn’t acted. While I am concerned for my colleague, I am also extremely concerned for our organization.
A: Resolving this tricky situation will depend in part on what your goal is. In some cases (an airline pilot, let’s say), getting an alcohol-impaired worker sidelined immediately is a top priority. But in this case, do you want to get this person fired? That’s what simply handing over those emails may achieve. In most workplaces, clear evidence of lying about missed work, for most any reason, is grounds for dismissal.
As an alternative, you might try approaching your supervisor with a nuanced message, said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health. He suggests wording like “’Joe may have a health problem that’s interfering with his performance.’”
“That’s the way we look at it; alcohol-use disorder is a health problem,” Koob said. If the supervisor presses for details, emphasize relevant specifics of the diminished work performance, so if you do mention that excessive drinking may play a role, it’s framed in terms of workplace benchmarks that affect the organization, rather than focusing on the employee’s personal life.
Raising your concern directly with your colleague risks a defensive or hostile reaction that’s ultimately counterproductive. But a close co-worker might be a different story, said Benton, who is also the author of “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.” If you feel you have the right kind of relationship, she said, “express concern and have something to offer” — whether that means researching a company’s employee-assistance program or other resources.
But ultimately, it is management’s responsibility to address this problem, Koob said — preferably by noting that performance is suffering, exploring why and offering help. That said, there remains a profound stigma around drug and alcohol problems, he said: “A large percentage of the population would still consider it a moral problem,” he said. All the more reason, perhaps, to take care in framing your concerns.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at email@example.com.