It’s a sweaty Sunday behind the scenes at the crowded café where I work.  Lemon slices are flying, coffee is sloshing, and the air conditioner has taken the day off. The floor has a ketchup-y sheen to it. My greasy shoelace is untied and I don’t have the time or the space to tend to it. Here comes my boss, into the fray. I freeze. Did someone forget an order of huevos rancheros? Shortchange a customer? Serve a child chocolate milk without a straw?

He squeezes into the prep alley and plunks two 24-packs of Keystone Light onto the countertop where Megan is rummaging in the pickle juice for the last pickle and Allison is tabulating a bill and hissing at the cooks.

He tells us to dig in. It’s been a rough day.

But the day isn’t over yet! I think nervously. Everyone cracks one open at once (can the customers hear us?!) and it feels grimy and wrong, but I manage to join in by telling myself it’s boss-sanctioned.

After enough swigs (hidden, of course) I suddenly feel I have a mental edge – a secret that keeps me afloat throughout the next two hours as I swivel between tables. The beer has raised our awareness of one another (and the shitty day we’ve all had) and as a result our collective mood is elevated, more generous.

Several years later, at a desk job, I’m met with the ambiguous concept of “sneak-a-beer-Friday” – no accompanying explanation. I am immediately suspicious. Is it sanctioned? If so, why are we sneaking? Or, is it covert? In which case, why is everyone talking about it? But one of my coworkers pauses with an opener cocked on a bottle of Rush River ale, asking me directly, and I give in … it’s five o’clock, anyway, and all I have to do until six is sit behind a sales desk in a deserted store. We’re all still working separately, but “sneaking” it together … bonding at a distance. Sort of. Half-heartedly.

Why wasn’t it as enjoyable as the first example? The intent and the rules weren’t as clear. Overall, I am neither friend nor foe to the concept of workplace drinking, but I do place a great amount of weight on the intent. The “why” seems even more important than the “when,” the “where,” and the “what.” (The “how much,” of course, is equally important.)

For instance, if an employer views alcohol as a way to – ahem – tap innovation, that’s where it could get ugly. Consider the basic recipe: take three ounces (or less) of employee brain. Swirl into it a drop or two of alcohol in a semi-vigorous manner. In go the olives. Out comes creativity. Spellbound by the indisputability of numbers (read: bottom line) employers have recently been looking at ways to introduce social drinking into the workday. (Or, tellingly, the worknight.) They’re also concerned with building a unique and flexible company culture. Put ‘em together and what have you got? The office bar.

In every office drinking article I’ve come across so far, (like this one, and this one) the manager/owner/boss/CEO candidly explains that the goal is to improve performance. With that kind of transparency, wouldn’t the employees feel an unhealthy amount of pressure to perform? Maybe even inferior in their sober state? And wouldn’t they come to resent the practice of workplace drinking? (Not to mention those that choose not to participate from the get-go.)

You see, I don’t think “drinking” and “expectations” should never appear together in the same sentence. “Drinking” and “relaxing?” Sure. “Drinking” and “socializing?” Yup. “Drinking and serving a plate of eggs in a divey college café?” Why not?!

In my experience, it “worked” when a small amount of alcohol was offered as a reward (albeit prematurely) for working hard, not as a remedy for our lagging performance -- even better was when it was unexpected.

But maybe it's just me, and some company out there has brewed up a better formula. What's been your experience with workplace drinking?

Tags: Advice, Keystone Light, Workplace drinking