As a reaction to today's headlines, many organizations have begun to rethink the traditional office holiday party, which can involve alcohol, and in some cases, dispensed in copious and unregulated amounts. The timing could not be more appropriate. Drinking can increase the incidence of unacceptable behavior. Not surprisingly, research has shown there is a clear link between male heavy drinking and harassment of their female coworkers.
Workplace culture is an important determinant of behavior in the workplace. With the positive interest in workplace culture, it is often forgotten that workplace culture can contribute to negative, counterproductive, and dysfunctional behaviors. For example, individuals working in a climate where the norms regarding drinking are more permissive may adjust their behavior accordingly--and may in fact drink more frequently than they would have had they worked in another type of environment. Research suggests that individual drinking behavior is influenced by the individual's interpretation of drinking norms, behaviors, and rationalizations expressed by coworkers.
One study ("Driven to Drink" published in the Academy of Management Journal) conducted by the Smithers Institute at Cornell University provided insight into the significance of perceived drinking norms as a predictor of problem drinking. The more the workplace turns a blind eye to drinking, the more likely drinking is to occur. The implication is accentuated in the context of workplace parties, celebrations, and special occasions. It is likely that if the tonality expressed by organizational leaders and the organizational culture is lighthearted about drinking, then heavy drinking is likely to be more prevalent. The problem is with the consequences of having permissive drinking norms in the workplace.
According to another study by the same researchers, ("Harassing Under the Influence" published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology) where there is heavy drinking among male employees, one is likely to find an increased prevalence of gender harassment. Using a sample of 1301 workers, they discovered that "there is a significant association between the proportion of males in a work unit identified as being heavy or 'at-risk' drinkers and the probability of gender harassment toward unit females." Simply put, the more the men drank the greater the likelihood that their female coworkers who worked in the same unit would experience gender harassment.
While harassment is embedded in both power relations and the culture, and while drinking is no excuse for gender harassment, drinking can bring to the surface and exacerbate harassing behaviors. While not every drinker is a harasser and not every harasser is a drinker, heavy or at-risk drinking can lead to negative consequences. As such, leaders may consider supplementing traditional gender harassment training with efforts aimed at tempering permissive working drinking cultures.