It’s office holiday party season again, and as usual that means alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol. For many employees, the holidays are the one time of year that it’s appropriate to have a drink at work. But for tech workers, the annual Christmas party is just another boozy day in the office.
Kegerators, or at least well-stocked beer fridges, are standard fixtures at tech companies, right up there with ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs. Some, like GitHub and Yelp, even offer multiple brews on tap. Conferences and meetups are awash with free drinks.
In theory, all this booze is meant to make the tech industry more appealing to employees. Companies with beer fridges look more laid back, freer, cooler than stuffy old firms where everyone wears a suit every day. But this posturing may actually be doing more harm than good by alienating non-drinkers, and exacerbating the problems that exclude so many people from technology. That tension doesn’t mean the Valley needs to go dry, but it’s time for tech to rethink its relationship with alcohol.
People abstain from alcohol for many reasons: health, religious objections, problems with alcohol in the past, whether themselves or family members. Some are too young (for all of tech’s obsession with youth, the industry can be surprisingly inhospitable to people under 21). And parents might not want to come home to their kids drunk.
Different companies have found different ways to address the issue of drinking at work. Yelp, for example, doesn’t allow employees to drink while working. GitHub keeps its bar separate from the main office and has limited amounts of alcohol in the office itself. Representatives of both companies say management encourages responsible drinking.
‘The expectation that people want to be showered in alcohol comes from the people at the top.’
But the problem isn’t so much that people drink at tech events, or even at work. Most of the non-drinkers we spoke to for this article didn’t mind being around people who drink, so long as those drinkers are not drunk. What really bothers non-drinkers is feeling underappreciated.
“In the tech industry, alcohol is currency,” Kara Sowles, a non-drinker who works for the Portland-based startup Puppet, wrote in a widely shared Model View Culture essay that forced some self-reflection in the industry. She points out that in the industry, employees are often rewarded with gifts of alcohol and company milestones are celebrated with boozy parties.
When companies rely on alcohol to reward employees, non-drinkers often end up shorted. Nabil Maynard, a former quality assurance engineer at Dropbox, recalls last year’s company holiday party that featured several brands of fancy Scotch but few concessions for non-drinkers. “All there was was mixers,” he says. “Couldn’t they at least have bought some fancy root beers?”
The company is at least trying to be more mindful. “Dropbox strives to make everyone feel like they belong, and we are mindful that no two Dropboxers are the same,” a Dropbox spokesperson told WIRED. “We offer a wide variety of food and beverages, including non-alcoholic drinks, at company social events so employees have options.” But that’s just one company. Booze-fueled parties still leave many people feeling left out.
The tech industry’s diversity problem is well-known, and company cultures that closely resemble frat houses don’t help. Alcohol is just one piece of that culture, but it’s a big one.
A study by Cornell University researchers in 2004 found a close connection between permissive workplace drinking cultures and sexual harassment. And while blaming sexual assault on alcohol would be a mistake, many incidents involve people who have been drinking. In short, heavy drinking at work or conferences makes employees–especially women–less safe.
Given the risks they take by providing alcohol, you might think that companies are calculating that if they don’t serve booze, employees will leave for companies that do. But it’s not clear that employees actually will change jobs just for booze. Victor Yocco, a user experience researcher in Philadelphia, says a funny thing happened when the company he works for decided to ditch its keg in favor of giving employees credit at both a nearby coffee shop and a pizza place. Workers could still pick up bottles of beer at the pizza joint, charge them to the company tab, and drink them at their desks. But more employees opted to take advantage of the company-paid coffee instead.
In other words, given other options, even people who aren’t teetotalers will often opt for a non-alcoholic beverage. That reality suggests alcohol really isn’t the only form of currency that tech workers will accept, or even want. Which makes sense. Most people get into the industry because they love technology, innovation, and problem solvingnot because they love drinking.
“The expectation that people want to be showered in alcohol comes from the people at the top, not the people on the ground,” Yocco says.
What to Do Instead?
“I think it’s important to look at how a culture treats the people who do drink alcohol,” Sowles tells WIRED. “Whether a culture or company is giving people choices on a day-to-day basis says a lot about how much it respects them.”
The insight that employees might actually prefer rewards and activities that don’t involve getting loaded suggests a surprisingly simple solution to tech’s alcohol problem: choice. Puppet, for example, does still have multiple beers on tap at its Portland headquarters. But it also has snacks, gourmet coffee, and other perks. GitHub just opened a coffee bar in its San Francisco headquarters. Dropbox has other refreshments available as well.
And giving employees other activities can help keep conferences and company events from getting out of hand. “One summer we had a big party with games and stalls, food trucks,” says Omair Mansoor, a customer success manager at the San Francisco startup Springshot. “There was an open bar but people didn’t get drunk.”
But it doesn’t take an enormous amount of creativity to come up with alternatives to alcohol-focused team events. It can be as simple taking a team out to eat at a restaurant where employees can get a drink if they want, but also bond over food. Ultimately, what’s most important is for both leadership and rank-and-file employees to be more mindful of alcohol’s role in their company’s culture, and be respectful of other people’s choices.
So keep the beer, Silicon Valley. Just make sure it’s not the only thing on tap.