Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work
Might as well go for a soda Nobody hurts, and nobody cries Might as well go for a soda Nobody drowns, and nobody dies
Go for a Soda – Kim Mitchell
Sitting on a bus one day, a deeply familiar workplace story unfolded between two colleagues. For context, the event they described happened over 30 years ago. Rehashing the rumour mill, these colleagues had not even met the protagonists. Connecting the dots, my former boss and the CEO were the spotlights. The recycled story had been recounted as part of my initiation into my first post-university job. Sadly, their gross indiscretions led to the demise of the once respected leaders. What happened? Married and drunk, they had a full-on affair at a Christmas party in front of their spouses and staff. While they both consented, thirty years later, these caressing dancers were still on the company’s radar, not their payroll. I doubt this tragic incident would have happened if there hadn’t been any alcohol.
Fast forward 25 years, I work one-on-one with workplace bullies and harassers to help them learn new ways to communicate in the workplace. Roughly 15% of the employees referred to me are accused of sexual harassment. Some incidents have included:
- Kissing a client
- Sending workout pictures to junior staff
- Making sexual comments about a person’s dress
- Compliments about someone’s appearance.
- Offering to remove an object that fell into a female colleague’s cleavage
- Using sexist, derogatory language
And the list goes on.
Almost all the incidents had one thing in common: they occurred offsite. It could have been an office party at a restaurant, a conference or a hotel room gathering. Over 80% of the cases involved excessive use of alcohol. Alcohol consumption combined with an external location often makes employees much more relaxed and, at times, lose their inhibitions. Most people can manage these situations, but there is usually a minority who cannot. Employers and individuals must ask themselves, is it worth it? Can you still have a fun staff event without alcohol? The fallout for the harasser, the victim and the organization can be massive.
The result? Humiliation for both the victim and the harasser. Sometimes the harasser is so drunk they don’t remember what they did or said. Two people who may have productively and respectfully worked together as colleagues will likely be moved around and never speak to each other again. Due to current workplace policies and laws, the offended party is not expected to hear any explanation or apology from the harasser, so no closure ever happens between them.
I have provided sensitivity/empathy training to numerous persons accused of sexual harassment. When they realize the impact of their behaviour on the recipient, they are usually mortified and feel a great deal of shame and guilt, especially when they know they could have avoided it if they had not drunk so much.
Am I blaming the use of alcohol on sexual harassment? No, sexual harassment still exists when alcohol is not consumed. However, people who may not normally behave disrespectfully and unlawfully are more likely to do so under the influence if they feel entitled. Sexual harassment is about exerting power and control over the victim, which usually means the offender does not think of the other person as an equal. Sometimes, these perceptions go unnoticed until alcohol or drugs are consumed. No one should get a pass because they were “under the influence.” The impact is the same on the victims regardless.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it is estimated that 21% of the population has an addiction, citing alcohol as the most preferred substance at 18%. Employers should take note of this statistic when it comes to planning events and ensuring employees know their obligations.
So, what can employers do to mitigate risks?
- Remind employees about the harassment policies and how they apply to all workplace events in or outside the physical office environment.
- Be aware that some employees may not be able to attend events that involve alcohol if they are trying to get sober.
- Strive to have non-alcoholic events as much as possible to be more accessible to employees who do not feel comfortable or are unable to drink. People with religious and dietary restrictions might not participate if there are no other choices. Offer non-alcoholic beverages without judgment.
- Avoid encouraging over-drinking.
- Highlight different benefit programs your company offers and the community resources related to addiction services.
- Ensure your DEI training includes information about addictions and workplace accommodations for those with substance abuse issues.
If you struggle with alcohol, find out what workplace benefits you can access to help you recover. Check out the community resources; many are free. If you do not feel you can control your drinking at a workplace event, opt out of it, or consider leaving early before colleagues become intoxicated. You’ll thank yourself.
To learn more about Diversity at Work’s Sensitivity/Empathy training, please visit: