It’s that time of year, xmas parties abound and the alcohol flows freely. I’ve been thinking a lot about alcohol lately and it’s relationship with the Technology industry. Indeed, alcohol is almost a currency in the industry, however, that relationship is slowly changing.

It wasn’t that long ago that salespeople would “drink their customers into submission.” Long lunches, much alcohol, in an effort to get that sale. It was common a decade ago and while it still persists in some areas, across the world it’s starting to change.

Klint Finley writes in a Wired piece titled “Tech’s Alcohol-Soaked Culture Isn’t a Party for Everyone

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.

I recall working, many years ago now, for a company that had a culture of drinking. Prizes were always bottles of wine, the lunch circuit was an expectation, late nights out on the company card with customers were common, and even team days revolved around drunkenness.

On our kick off and kick on conferences, we’d take bets on who was going to get fired after an alcohol-fuelled mistake.

There was a point where I took a few months off drinking. I’d decided my relationship with alcohol had become imbalanced and I wanted to redress that.

The drinking culture of the company couldn’t understand this and I was dropped from the inner-circle, seen as somewhat hostile, and the drinkers in the company simply cut me off. All the business was being done over a drink somewhere and I found myself ostracised. It was an interesting lesson.

The problem with having a currency of alcohol in technology is that it isolates people who have no interest in drinking.

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.

Kara Sowles writes;

In the tech industry, alcohol is currency. It’s used to grow event attendance, to bribe participants, to reward employees and community members. Informal interviews are conducted in bars, to see if potential employees are likable in a social setting, or can hold up under heavy drinking with clients. Co-workers gather in pubs to bond and shed the day’s frustrations. Good performance is rewarded with shared whiskey, tequila parties, opening up the office taps. We drink to say thank-you, to seal deals, to bid farewell, to make new friends, to rant.

Except…not all of us drink. – Source

I often talk to people who tell me they wish that they could drink less. When you start to examine what causes people to drink when they don’t want to, some interesting things arise. It’s something that I have been challenging myself with over the last year as I get older. Drinking alcohol for me is at variance with my health goals.

When culture contains drinking we feel as if we have to participate in that behaviour in order to “fit in.” This is our cave-man brain trying to protect us.

The cave-man brain believes that we must constantly strive to be part of a tribe. Anything that is at variance with that belief, could see us thrown out of the tribe. In those days, being rejected by our clan resulted in death. The world was a dangerous place and there is great safety in numbers.

So I find that sometimes I drink, not because I want to, but because it’s expected and part of that tribal culture.

By forming an accepted myth that alcohol is currency, and then leveraging that myth at social events, tech companies also work to encroach on personal time and erode work/life balance. Refusing to go out for drinks, in preference of going home, is a nonsensical refusal to accept the dominant currency. In order to protect the status quo, those who refuse to partake in its structure are pushed out.

Some of this reaches deeper into the culture of poor work practice. That work practice being that you give all of your waking days to a company at the expense of your health, friends, community, and family. The old adage “first to arrive and last to leave” springs to mind.

That culture is starting to be called out. Diversity is important to tech companies.

As illustrated in this Cornell study along with many others, diversity improves performance, morale, and end product. More women engineers means building a better internet, and improving software that can service society as a whole. Building a better Internet is why I started doing software development in the first place. I think we can all agree this is of utmost importance.

I speak at a lot of conferences and the usual reward two years ago was a bottle of wine. These days that is very unusual. Chocolate, vouchers, and other non-alcoholic gifts have replaced the wine.

This matches a common scenario in the tech industry, where attendees or employees wind up consuming more alcohol than they’d wished or planned for because alcoholic drinks are the most visible, best tasting, or only drinks available. Have we become a parody of hokey high-school peer pressure films, which warned that your “friends” and peers would ridicule you into imitating their behaviours, regardless of what’s best for you? Ultimately, our collective myths are peer-pressure; our practices and social gatherings are peer-pressure. The way that drinks are presented, advertised, or available at most tech events, alongside the overall atmosphere of presumed drinking, creates an expectation to enjoy alcohol.

An interesting myth is that almost no one drinks. This is simply untrue and research has shown that if offered other alternatives, many, will choose not to imbibe.

It’s a fascinating topic and one that I am still trying to get my head around personally.

For companies, I think if you’re serious about building a welcoming, diverse environment, you need to think seriously about what the presence of alcohol means and its effects on a situation.  Should companies outright ban alcohol in the office or at work events?  If it’s not at least on the table for you to consider, then you’re not taking this stuff seriously enough.

My experience has been that companies and agencies that have an outright ban on alcohol have a healthier work environment and are more productive. Which makes complete sense.

My mission to become healthier tells me that I need to consume less alcohol. It also tells me that I often buckle to peer pressure and the expectation that an alcohol culture creates.

It’s an interesting subject and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

3 comments

  1. Good article Ian – a poignant time of year to discuss this subject as well. For years I’ve witnessed a heavy drinking culture in large well known Kiwi tech companies (and a few multinationals!), particularly in the tech sales groups. Ironically, after speaking myself a a well known NZ health conference, I was rewarded with a bottle of white wine (which I don’t drink). I passed it on…

  2. Hi Ian, I am sure you mean well and agree with your sentiments about being healthier, but I don’t see this as a problem nor have I for some years, maybe I am lucky to not work where this is a symptom of a much larger set of issues to which you allude, but also I am an adult and I choose my actions and my standards.. Its Christmas Ian so Merry Christmas, this time of year there will be more exposure to alcohol and the Christmas spirit. I see the issue you have raised as more one of Kiwi issue and not specific to the IT industry any more than in the construction industry or advertising/media industry or even a sports club issue. I don’t believe the IT industry is any more exposed to this that any other segments. It is moreover a cultural issue right or wrong. Age would also play a big part of this. Anyway Ian Merry Christmas and have a safe holiday period, time to unwind relax and chill out

  3. Change is happening slowly. The alcoholic culture though is not just limited to the Tech industry, trades and business are also locked in this reward struggle and have been for decades.. its my view that it stems from tough physical labour jobs, and the thought of a hard eaarned beer at the end of the days work. Our cultural roots have not changed along with our working environment, office job or trade labour we still hanker for a cold beet, wine, etc.. once we are done. Its easily accessible and social.. so like many cultural habits will be difficult to change.

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