Tony's Rant: The Beer Session

If you are supplying beer or other alcoholic beverages to your employees, you just can't be serious.

By Tony Noel

It's Friday afternoon.

As three o'clock makes its way across the time zones, caps are twisted, tabs are popped and coworkers in small shops around the country — the world, in fact — take a seat on makeshift chairs or recline on their workbenches to unwind with some conversation and a cold beer.

In many shops, this tradition began simply, many years ago. In others, it is a more recent perk, begun almost unwittingly. The owner or manager picked up a six-pack one Friday, plunked it down on a centrally located workbench, popped a beer and toasted his two or three employees as a thank-you from one working man to another for the efforts of the prior week.

Then the manager noticed something: A little "lubrication" encouraged discussion of the week's ups and downs, and downing a cold one or two seemed to establish a sense of camaraderie among his employees. It loosened the lips of the normally reserved and let everyone leave with a smile on their faces.

The more the manager thought about it, the more sense it made to do it more often. It could foster a sense of togetherness and teamwork, perhaps even confirm the nobility of the craft, he reasoned. Soon, what started as a special treat became the norm, a weekly ritual — a perk that current employees might mention to those thinking of joining the team: "Free beer, every Friday!"

There are many areas of life that are neither black nor white, but gray. As we mature, we are increasingly able to see both sides of most coins. But we still tend to hang on to a few things upon which we cannot compromise — we either love them or we hate them. The Grateful Dead. Politicians. Medium-density fiberboard. To name but a few.

For me, add the in-shop beer session — and count it in my "no go" column.

I can sense the "pro-brew" crowd lining up already to take me to task for even suggesting such heresy. But I do not care. Because every single one of them is wrong.

I do not expect what I have to say to change any minds on this. If you are committed to cracking a cold one (or more commonly, more than one) with your staff every week, or even every day, what I have to say will not stop you. In fact, it will probably give you reason to keep right on doing it — because you just love breaking the rules. Why am I going to say it anyway? So you can never say I did not warn you.

Did not warn you of the obvious — and not-so-obvious — problems that you are opening yourself, your company and even your family up to, by turning your shop into a taproom.

First of all, in case you had not noticed, there is heavy equipment — designed to cut things — all over that shop. A perfectly sober person can trip and fall into a table saw, even one that is not running, and get a healthy gash from the blade or knock his head on the table. Compromising somebody's sense of balance with a brew or two only tempts fate, if you ask me.

Secondly, in case you had forgotten, it is not your job to be your employees' friend. It is your job to manage them. If you need Mr. Miller's or Bud's help with that, maybe you need to consider a change in your management style — like, say, getting a clue.

And we come, inevitably, to the legal side of the equation.

Many employers scoff at the notion that one of their employees would sue them if they were injured as a result — direct or indirect — of bending an elbow in their shop. And I will give them that point. In all but truly severe cases, it is unlikely that an employee will seek damages from his employer.

But it is not the employees you need to worry about. It is everyone else in the world.

If you supply alcohol to an employee and he then goes out and sideswipes three parked cars while driving home, from whom do you think the owners of those cars are going to seek compensation?

This very possibility is one reason the holiday parties of larger, smarter, lawyered-up companies are increasingly (1) held nowhere near company property, (2) held nowhere close to working hours and (3) absent of "open bars," i.e., employees buy their own drinks, because that takes responsibility for the access to alcohol out of the company's hands.

Look, I can commiserate up to a point with those who think it stinks that we live in a time when alcohol consumption is taken so seriously, monitored so closely and judged so severely. But it has a lot to do with the fact that we now have more people on the planet than ever before, more powerful machinery at our disposal than ever before (table saws and cars, to name but two) and, hopefully, a greater awareness of the preciousness of life than ever before.

Certainly, we also have more lawyers than we need. You will get no argument from me on that. But I am afraid I stand with them on this one.

It just does not make sense to risk losing everything you have built — in an industry where building a successful business is tough enough to begin with — when there are plenty of other, less-risky ways to engender a sense of community, democracy and fellowship among your employees.

Anthony Noel writes and works in New Bern, NC. Send him e-mail at anthonynoel@cox.net.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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