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by Dana Mattioli | March 10, 2009

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The days of the three-martini lunch may be long gone, but what's appropriate when it comes to drinking at work functions can be unclear to employees.

There are some basics few would dispute. Getting drunk at a company event is never a good idea. If your company has an alcohol policy, follow it. If your company doesn't have one, use caution. One too many may lead to a career setback.

Norms about drinking can vary depending on the situation. A meal over a job interview, for example, is not the same as a meal with a client. Company parties, where open bars can be common, can present their own challenges.

Most human-resources professionals -- 70% -- say drinking is accepted at their organizations' holiday parties, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in Alexandria, Va.

If alcohol is served at your company event, one or two drinks usually are OK as long as they don't alter your judgment, says Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work." Set a limit for yourself before the event and stick to it.

Why do some people drink to excess at parties when it might be against their better judgment? Social anxiety might be one reason, says organizational psychologist Steve Gravenkemper of Plante & Moran, a regional consulting and accounting firm in Southfield, Mich. Office parties can look and feel like social occasions instead of business, he says. Those uncomfortable at such events, he says, may use alcohol as a social lubricant to reduce stress.

If you expect to have a drink at a company party, says Ms. Whitmore, eat a snack before arriving to avoid drinking on an empty stomach. Although it may be a party, she says, remember it is work-related, and you are always being evaluated. She points to a co-worker at a previous job who danced on a table at a holiday party after drinking too much and was the topic of chatter the next day.

When it comes to what to drink, take your lead from management. But don't match higher-ups drink for drink if they exceed two beverages, says Brad Karsh president of JobBound, a career-consulting firm in Chicago. He saw a junior co-worker become sick at a Christmas party after trying to keep up with managers. "If you do something crazy, and they have to put you in a cab because you're throwing up on everybody, it won't advance your career," he says.

If the crowd you're with is drinking to excess and you're pressured to join in, Dr. Gravenkemper suggests ordering a decoy, such as a club soda with a lime wedge and stirrer.

After seeing senior-level professionals embarrass themselves at office parties because of drinking, Michael Watts decided not to drink in work-related situations. "You have to filter so much of what you say, and alcohol is the anti-filter," says Mr. Watts, 47, president of The Long Island Partnership, a nonprofit linking businesses with economic-development programs.

Drinking and company holiday parties don't necessarily go hand in hand. A telephone survey of 1,051 adults over age 18 in the U.S. by Harris Interactive for Martindale-Hubbell's lawyers.com in 2004 found that 38% have attended office holiday parties where alcohol was not served.

Beyond the holiday party, there are other work-related situations in which professionals may face decisions about whether or how much to drink. Consider this advice for navigating them.

Happy hour.

Meeting up with colleagues is not the same as hanging out with personal friends. Let your co-workers order first, so you can gauge what they are drinking, Mr. Karsh suggests. Don't follow the lead if the drink of choice is beyond your normal alcohol tolerance. "If everyone is ordering iced tea, don't order a Long Island iced tea," he says.

Interview over lunch or dinner.
Avoid drinking during an interview over a meal. Candidates need to be on top of their game.

If the interviewer offers, politely decline, even if your host indulges, says Mr. Karsh.

Dinner with a client.
When dining with clients, let them order first. If the client orders a drink, it's OK to order one, says Phyllis Davis, the founder and director of the American Business Etiquette Trainers Association in Las Vegas.

Splitting a bottle of wine doesn't give you the green light to drink half. Have only one or two glasses, depending on your body type and tolerance, says Ms. Whitmore.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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