When Your Career Path Intersects With Alcohol

Natalie Lundsteen offers advice for graduate trainees and postdocs negotiating the dos and don'ts of drinking alcohol at professional events when potential employers are present -- and watching.

February 25, 2019
 
 

I recently attended a local life science networking happy hour where I saw two graduate students, wearing name tags that identified them as being from my institution, leaving the bar area, both clutching two beer bottles. I wondered whether the guys were bringing the bottles to friends or colleagues elsewhere at the reception or if they both were going to chug down two beers in quick succession. I and most of the other attendees at the event, including prospective mentors or employers of the graduate students, would not know their intentions unless we'd actually witnessed the young men drinking the beers in succession. But that would not necessarily prevent other attendees from making incorrect assumptions about the personality or professionalism of these two young men.

I will confess, I was reminded of the "Open bar, dude!" scene from the movie Super Troopers. Knowing how you might be perceived as a potential employee or colleague is a murky area of professional development that can't really be taught. It has to be learned by doing and sometimes by making mistakes. However, unfamiliarity with the unwritten rules of drinking at a professionally oriented event should not stop you from having a drink and enjoying a professional event -- just as long as you present a professional appearance.

I later chatted with the two students, and they told me they were indeed excited at the open bar and planned to drink the beers themselves. They had not realized that networking events should focus more on the people than the drinks and are not the place to be boisterous with friends. That encounter got me thinking about conversations I regularly have with students and postdocs who don’t drink and aren’t comfortable attending events where alcohol is plentiful or those who are interviewing for a job over dinner and wonder if they could or should order wine with the meal. Grizzled workplace veterans like me have spent years learning how to navigate conference receptions and after-work gatherings, and there is always an element of "it depends on the situation." But generally, if you’re starting your graduate career and find yourself in a professional situation where alcohol is present, it helps to think ahead of time about how you will be perceived, whether you drink or not, and to consider your own preferences and what you want to get out of any event. That way, you will keep your head clear so you can focus on advancing your career.

The Omnipresence of Alcohol

Nearly all social-professional interactions involve alcohol, and it will be difficult to attend a professional event where alcohol is not served. Business and networking culture have a long-standing tradition of happy hours, mixers or receptions. A Society for Human Resource Management survey asked 500 HR professionals how drinking is viewed in their organization across a range of work-related activities. Drinking was considered acceptable by the HR professionals in the following instances:

  • 70 percent: at a holiday party
  • 40 percent: at a meal with a client or customer
  • 32 percent: at a retirement party
  • 28 percent: at the celebration of a company milestone
  • 22 percent: at a meal with a co-worker
  • 4 percent: at a meal during a job interview

Fourteen percent said that drinking alcohol at a work-related event was never acceptable.

You probably already have encountered professional situations with alcohol during your graduate training, such as a lab or research group dinner or outing, a networking reception at a conference, or a job interview during a meal. Drinking is an integral, unavoidable part of many work events, but your decisions about when, where and how to consume alcohol are individual choices.

If you don't drink, don't assume it's a disadvantage and avoid happy hours or cocktail receptions. You certainly should still attend events with alcohol, such as academic conferences, because in many case you will miss out on making connections. And if you skip a lab or team outing, you could be seen as someone who doesn't care about group camaraderie. Most people will be focused on their own concerns, so nobody really cares (or should care) why you do or don’t drink.

If you must decline an alcoholic drink, do it gracefully and with confidence. Don't be judgy or offer any commentary -- an explanation is not required! If the individual offering the drink is insistent (which is really impolite), a simple reason such as "I don't drink" or "I'm not drinking this evening" should suffice. You can also say you are the driver for the evening, have to give a conference talk at 8 a.m. or are getting over a cold/taking an antibiotic. Having a glass of a nonalcoholic drink in your hand does usually forestall anyone from offering you anything. And remember if someone asks if you’d like a drink they may not be referring to an alcoholic one. At some events, bartenders serve nonalcoholic drinks in different glasses to alcoholic ones. For example, soft drinks are served in plastic cups with straws while other types of drinks are in actual glassware. If you are concerned about standing out as a nondrinker, just ask the bartender for the glass you prefer and ask for a wedge of lime in any soft drink. This advice also works for those who do drink but want to manage consumption during a professional event.

Another professional consideration is drinking alcohol during an interview situation. Will there be any negative impression if you do not drink at all? This will vary depending on the culture of the institution or company, but generally if you are invited to a dinner as part of an interview, take your cues from the host or most senior person at the table. If he or she orders a glass of wine or a cocktail, it's a good bet to mirror their choice, but make that single glass last you throughout the meal even if others consume more rounds of drinks. You are the one in the spotlight, so you can't afford to hamper your performance in any way.

If you are not a drinker and are attending an evening interview meal, you could either mention privately to your host or someone senior on the selection committee in advance of the meal that you don't drink, and so will simply order a club soda or other beverage, or you can make a comment while ordering your beverage along the lines of: "Just soda for me, please. I'm being interviewed, and I've got to stay on my game!" If you are interviewing for an academic role at a campus with any kind of specific alcohol ordinances (such as a faith-based institution), be aware of this ahead of time, or err on the side of caution by not ordering alcohol. As for informational interviews, they are best held during the workday, at a workplace or over coffee. If you do meet a professional contact postwork at a bar, be mindful. Similarly, if you are planning any type of work event, consider making something else besides alcohol the focus of the activity -- would an afternoon coffee or breakfast bagels provide the same opportunities for attendees?

Set Limits

Whatever amount of alcohol you normally drink, it's advised to consume half that amount at a professional event. It's been said (but not scientifically proven) that when you are anxious, one alcoholic drink has the same effect as three drinks in a normal setting. Don't use alcohol to overcome social anxiety or release your inner extrovert! Self-monitor (or ask a good friend) to recognize when it's time for you to slow down or stop drinking altogether. If you get melancholy or giddy after a drink or two, and can sense a shift in your demeanor, switch from alcohol to a soft drink. Alternating alcohol with club soda or another nonalcoholic drink is something seasoned professionals do regularly at work-related events. Sip, don't swig. Ask for an extra-tall glass, or extra ice to dilute your drink. Take time to eat, if food is available, before you have a drink and again at some point during the event. In addition to setting a drink limit, consider setting a time limit for yourself at events. In general, know yourself and how much you can handle, as well as how you react to alcohol.

Alcohol as an Artifact

Your drink, whether alcoholic or not, can be used to help navigate networking situations. Whether it's alcohol in your glass or not, holding a glass like everyone else in attendance can be comforting and give you something to do with your hands. You can even use your drink to get out of conversations that are stalling or faltering: "I'm going to go get another drink. Please excuse me, it was great talking to you," or to continue a great conversation: "I think I'd like another drink, may I get you one as well?"

In terms of what and how to drink at a work-related event, it is more polite to drink from a glass instead of swig from a bottle when in conversation, so whenever possible, pour your drink into a glass. I also might have had a different impression of those grad students holding multiple beer bottles at the networking hour if they each had two glasses in hand. Most professional events with a bar are not set up for elaborate cocktail construction -- avoid showing off your mixology savvy and just get something simple. If there's someone you admire and want to talk to standing next to you at the bar, it's a great opportunity to start a conversation by asking what they are drinking, or what they would drink if not at a limited-option professional event. Don't pregame a work event. And as for drinking shots at any professional or workplace event: don't. Ever.

My closing advice: if a work event starts feeling like a party, it's probably time to leave. Wherever you are in your career, you could be just one networking conversation away from an exciting collaboration or opportunity. Don't miss it because you've had too much to drink. Cheers!

Bio

Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is a member, and currently serves as president-elect, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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