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by Perri Capell | March 31, 2009


Question:Is it ever appropriate to have a drink at a prospective employer's cocktail party or open house? When is it -- if ever -- appropriate to have a drink during a job interview held over lunch or dinner? And is it ever appropriate to have a drink at a company event if you're an intern?

-- Janine Marsh, Los Angeles

Janine: This is a good time to answer questions about whether to drink alcohol at office gatherings. Year-end business and office festivitiesare as common as wreaths on cars in December. Alcohol typically is served at them, and employees often don't know how to behave.

You haven't asked specifically about drinking at holiday office parties, but potential new hires or interns should observe the same rules at these gatherings as they would at an open house or cocktail party hosted by an employer.

When it comes to office-party etiquette, being an intern is no different than being a potential hire. Interns may know company employees from working with them, but internships often are "try before you buy" programs and until you have a solid offer, you're still under review.

The first thing to remember about an office party -- whether it's specifically for prospective recruits to meet employees or to celebrate the holidays -- is that it's a business event, not a social event. This is a source of confusion for a lot of people, says Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates, a Cherry Hill, N.J., business-etiquette and corporate-communications training firm. They assume the evening is purely social and may arrive dressed in outfits that are too casual or revealing and behave inappropriately. For example, they may think it's acceptable to be very personal with those they meet. Their assumption tends to gain strength if alcohol is consumed, Ms. Pachter says.

At a recent seminar, Ms. Pachter says she was told about a recruit who attended an open house for prospective hires at a major pharmaceutical company prior to a round of interviews the next day. The prospect drank too much and ended up putting his arm around the director of recruiting and saying, "I love you, man." He was not hired, Ms. Pachter says.

"It's too easy to do stupid things when you have had too much to drink," says Ms. Pachter. "The potential for disaster is so great, why risk it?"

It's interesting that you use the word "appropriate" in your query. In this business matter, as in many others, what's appropriate isn't always wise. Sure, it's appropriate for a candidate or intern to have a glass of wine, a beer or other alcoholic drink during an employer's cocktail party or open house -- as long as they're of legal age to be served alcohol. Although some might argue that under-aged attendees can drink at a private party, your future employee might be liable for the infraction if something unfortunate happened. In other words, it would be in bad form to put the company in a risky position.

You might feel you should follow the lead of your host or boss, who may be holding a glass of bubbly. But is it wise or advisable for you -- a potential hire or intern -- to drink alcohol at a company social event? No.

Realize that your behavior is being evaluated at any event involving your current or future employer -- whether it's an open house or meal-time interview. Prospective bosses want to see how well you operate in a situation that requires you to eat, make small talk, and deal with people outside the office. "Your attendance is mandatory at any business social event," says Ms. Pachter, "but the main purpose is business, not food and drink. How you behave has ramifications for you."

Alcohol is the great relaxer, but the last thing a job prospect or intern should be at an open house or interview is relaxed, says Patricia Byrnes, senior associate director at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. If you're savvy, your brain will be engaged on many levels. At a party or open house, prospects should be thinking about who they want to meet, what they want to learn and what they should say in response to questions. Moreover, it should seem effortless for them to be charming around business acquaintances.

"People are making impressions of you, and you diminish your ability to be on top of your game when you drink." says Ms. Byrnes.

Will you seem odd walking around a holiday office party with soft drink? Not likely. You may be surprised by the number of people who don't drink alcohol at all or who never drink it in business settings. If you are concerned you'll stand out without a cocktail or glass of wine in your hand, order one drink and nurse it all night. But that's it.

It's even more critical to not drink alcohol during job interviews over lunch or dinner. The setting is more intimate and any missteps induced by alcohol will be more obvious. If your interviewer orders wine or a beer, don't follow his or her lead. Have mineral water or a soda. "You need to be sharp and there is a lot you have to manage, such as dining etiquette and social interactions that differ from a structured job interview," says Ms. Byrnes. "You diminish your ability to notice the nuances."

Look at it this way: Not drinking at office gatherings or interviews has no downsides and lots of upsides. Consuming alcohol at these events has the opposite effect. And if you rely on alcohol simply to fit in at an office gathering, consider talking with a counselor about the reasons for your social anxiety.


Filed Under: Job Search

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