Mixed Signals

07.03.134:45 AM ET

The Double Standard of Drinking at Work

As the ‘office bar’ gains in popularity, it’s still frowned upon for women to partake in office boozing.

Ever since college, Julianne had been a voracious drinker who prided herself on being able to keep up with—and in some cases even drink more than—“the boys.”

When she graduated and took a position as a recruiter for a technical firm, she figured she’d excel at the job, which depended heavily on being social and likable, something she’d always excelled at. Male friends who worked in the same industry talked about how the more they went out at night, the better they seemed to perform. “I remember thinking, I can’t believe there’s actually a legitimate profession that will pay me to drink and socialize!” she says.

And yet the job was a bust. She was undeniably bad at it—something she credited, to her surprise, to the sort of socializing she thought would make her a slam dunk. During those first few months on the job, she never got sloppy—though she couldn’t say the same for her male colleagues—but she got the distinct impression that her boozing was somehow off-putting to clients. When they were drinking with the guys, though, these same clients seemed to take no issue.

“It was confusing,” says Julianne. “I felt both this pressure to go out and entertain and be fun, but not to go too far. And the tricky part was that there was no real line to help me determine what that ‘too far’ was.”

For decades drinking has played an important role in the professional arena. In many industries, employees are called on to entertain and schmooze clients over after-work drinks or to “bond” with their co-workers over happy-hour beers or at company parties. Many who don’t participate often feel left out of the group or even suffer professionally. And as drinking at, and for, work increases, so does the pressure to partake. An April story in the New York Post covered the resurgence of the Mad Men–style “office bar,” especially among Manhattan tech and marketing companies, where cocktails are shaken and kegs are tapped to commemorate victories (or simply 5 o’clock) and encourage camaraderie. At the Boston advertising firm Arnold, employees often gather around not a water cooler but a vending machine full of beer. Companies see office happy hour as a place to share ideas and way to boost morale and keep people at the office later, while employees say it can offer the opportunity to get to know co-workers in a way that makes completing projects with them later easier and more fun. Those who don’t participate can be seen as stuck up or antisocial.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, the office bar as professional motivator might not be so off base: recent research has proven that drinking at work can encourage workers to be more productive. In a study titled “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving,” published in the March 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition, researchers found that participants who were slightly drunk were actually better, faster, and more creative at problem solving than their sober counterparts.

At the same time, drinking either at or for work may have different implications for women than for men. That’s because while drinking with colleagues or clients may foster closeness and help land deals, it can also encourage compromising situations. A 2011 study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, for example, found that drinking alcohol in a largely unfamiliar environment—that is, at your desk chair versus a bar stool—can lead to an inability to control unsuitable behavior. And thanks to a hard-to-shake double standard akin to the old “slut versus stud,” there tends to be a different standard for how much women and men can drink and still be respectable in the morning. Though in many cases, men are still allowed—maybe even expected—to get a little out of control. Yet even during work-related drinks, it can be frowned upon for a woman to do the same.

Like many 20-somethings she knew, Sascha both was ambitious and liked to have a good time. But she knew she was something of a lightweight. And so, when she started her new job as assistant head of sales for an artisan food brand, she chose her after-work outings carefully. “But then people would seem offended when I’d say no, or the next morning I’d feel like I had missed out on something,” she says. “I did not want to be perceived as the office prude.”

And so she went. Things were fine—better, even, as she established an easy rapport with her colleagues—until the night she had one too many and went home with a co-worker she shouldn’t have: her married boss. The next day, and for weeks after, she got an undeniable cold shoulder from her co-workers. One of her reports asked to transfer out of her department. Sascha’s boss, meanwhile, suffered no repercussions. Even though he was the one with the wife, she told me, people treated him the same as they always had. “We had both been drinking,” she says. “But while my drinking was ‘out of control,’ his was ‘just being a guy.’ It was a huge mistake on both our parts, but it was my career and reputation—and mine only—that suffered as a consequence.”

That doesn’t mean on-the-job drinking is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, many women, especially those in traditionally male-dominated industries, value the ability to use after-work socializing—even the slightly tipsy kind—to get ahead. But the act does need to be approached carefully and with certain forethought. If the purpose of your drinking is to build relationships with your colleagues or clients, make sure you drink with that end goal in mind.

“At some point in the night I crossed from relationship building to relationship destroying, and in truth, I could have stopped it,” says Sascha. “There was still a troublesome double standard at play in the fallout. But I was naive to think that safely drinking with the office meant I could safely get drunk with the office, even if everyone was doing it. I have to be responsible for myself in every other aspect of my career. Why would this be any different?”