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Drinking Your Way Up the Ladder:

Expectations for After-Hours Drinking Among Professionals

Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.




If you are a professional in a high-pressure, high status job, particularly in a city--a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, involved in broadcast media, print media, or new media, a business executive or consultant, in marketing, sales, or almost anything else, you've probably experienced the pressure to drink socially after hours,  at conferences, at parties, and at colleagues'  or clients' get-togethers.[1]

The pressure is usually very direct.[2] For those who abstain for personal, religious, or medical reasons, pressure to participate can be upsetting. On the other hand, absence from social events can adversely affect an individual's career.[3]

This paper considers the pressures professionals experience to drink, and explores how one might drink without appearing sloppy, without substantial health risks. Since the norms for drinking in professional circles are so strong, this paper does not advocate abstinence for most individuals. Instead, it will encourage readers to consider their relationship to alcohol in the context of their professional and home lives, and to be aware of when they—and their colleagues have had enough so they can back off safely, without damage to their reputation as either good buddies or as  professionals.

Why Worry

The vast body of research into alcohol abuse has been done in industrial settings, ignoring the issues unique to white-collar professions. This approach is short-sighted. Professionals' decision making may affect many other people. Moreover, impaired judgment in a major decision maker, or in one who is responsible for another person's health or well-being, can be as catastrophic as a mistake on a dangerous production line.

Drinking as a Social Grace; or, Alcohol as Social Grease

Most  mid- to large-sized companies offer many excuses for getting together: dances, dinners, parties, retreats, and drinks after work to name a few. Participating in social events has many important ramifications for a career:

·   It is an opportunity to make personal connections, showcase your strengths, and be informally evaluated.

·    Failing to appear can knock you off the partnership or advancement track.

·   Colleagues and competitors get to know each other's styles in a (supposedly) less  stressful atmosphere.

·   This type of expected hospitality for an out-of-town client can lead to future job leads..

According to thousands of attorneys, executives, and other professionals, alcohol lubricates friendship as well as business. Many professionals feel that socializing--and the drinking that accompanies it--is critical to their careers. The work of a career may occur in an office, but the career path develops at conferences, in bars, over dinner, or during a game of golf. Researchers may have other definitions, but at their core, careers are about having people think of you as much as a "good buddy", and as able to "fit in". Your smarts and your abilities simply get you in the door.

"Fitting in" extends to drinking. Not only is it generally expected that you will drink, but it is expected that the drinking will be appropriate to the situation.[4]  In many cases, participants match not only the number of drinks, but type of drink as well. White wine won't mix with the whiskey crowd (especially for a man). Bottled water's always okay--as a chaser.

Drinking at such events can be important:

·     Drinking is a social skill, and social skills matter to advancement;

·     Talking about drinks can be a first step toward bonding;

·     Joking and laughing is more appropriate over drinks than in the office, and is a more pleasant way to bond than discussing work;

·     Drinkers stay out later, so have more time to get to know each other;

·     Among men, abstinence may be seen as unmasculine, and the male nondrinker may be stigmatized.

·     Moderat d rinking helps some people seem to be "on"”,  shows that they relate well to others (who drink),  and that they can network.

·   .Social drinking also helps individuals win entrée into other people's confidence, allowing them an inside look at a competitor's company, for example.

·   Social events put you in the right place and the right time to garner  high-quality information and invaluable job leads.

Drops in the Bucket

People aren't just engaging in wishful thinking when they say that drinking helps their career. Economists validate this conception, demonstrating that

moderate drinking provides a premium to professional employees:

·     male nondrinkers earn  12.8 percent less than drinkers,

·     female nondrinkers earn 25.5 percent less  than drinkers.[5]

·     The highest premia went to those professionals who have approximately 75 drinks/month[6].

Drinking Like The Professional You Wish to Be

Sloppy drinking is as frowned upon as not showing up. However, men and women are held to different standards: women must be more in control of themselves than men[7]. If a woman drinks a little too much, tells off-color jokes, or is a bit loud, she risks being seen as behaving inappropriately as a woman. However, strict adherence to expectations of “feminine” behavior will make her appear unassertive and inadequate.

If a man becomes loud or acts inappropriately (especially towards a woman), his behavior is likely to be laughed off. A woman's sloppiness, on the other hand, will create a permanent label for her, even if she is not as obnoxious as her male colleague.

The woman most likely to succeed in navigating this gauntlet is the one who can drink enough to be seen as willing to drink, but who keeps her wits about her enough to figure out how to act with different people. (A mentor or guide can help her make these decisions best.)

Where's the Problem? Recognizing Higher Risk

Most people do not consider their relationship with alcohol or other "recreational" drugs, and may allow these chemicals to have too much of an influence on their lives and choices. Too often, even those people who think long and hard about career and mate choices don't think much about their chemical choices. As a result, many people don't recognize that there is a problem until it starts affecting other people in their lives.

Misuse: While most people can handle their liquor well enough, some few cannot. For them,  even a single episode of misue can lead to serious problems with intoxication and illness.[8]

Abuse: Others will develop a pattern of misuse, becoming alcohol abusers.

Dependence is another possibility for some individuals. It is characterized by 1) the body's tolerance for increasing amounts of alcohol; and 2) by withdrawal symptoms. These unpleasant effects occur when the individual doesn't maintain a level of alcohol in his or her bloodstream. The individual may also experience a loss of control over the substance, and is unable to refrain from using, or to control that use. Time is spent in obtaining the substance, using it, and recovering from the effects of the substance, while other activities--including work and friends--become less important.[9]

Many professionals live an unbalanced life. The stress, lack of alternative socializing opportunities, and the all-encompassing drive to succeed makes them more vulnerable to alcoholism. One author, Jersild, tells the story of a young attorney who thought her drinking was well under control because she was "only" drinking as much as her colleagues. When she finally had a chance to spend time with her old friends, she realized how much she was in fact drinking, how much she depended on her drinks, and how her personality and temperament had changed. She checked herself into a treatment facility, and checked herself out of the high pressure career path she had originally chosen.

Young Professionals

Young recruits are very much at risk. Eager to fit in, not knowing their limits, and in some cases not knowing their family histories[10] regarding alcohol, young executives and attorneys may find out too soon that they cannot drink at the level their colleagues seem to expect. Pushing themselves may have disastrous consequence.

Recovering Alcoholics

Recovering alcoholics who feel they must abstain may also experience substantial pressure. In some cases, they have developed supportive networks and good strategies for coping with the pressures in good cheer, so they don't miss out on most of the socializing they need to succeed in their careers. In fact, in some communities, the recognized recovering alcoholic can be well-supported by his or her colleagues. Protected from undue direct pressure, these individuals can do very well in developing their careers, drinking only juice or coffee[11].

In other communities, unfortunately, colleagues may jokingly press the recovering alcoholic to "try just one sip"”. It is not always easy for the target to get out of the interaction unscathed. If you see someone subjected to this kind of harassment, please consider helping them out of the situation quickly and with class.


Women face particular challenges as well. Women in male-dominated professions experience an uneven playing field, and often believe they must "drink like one of the guys" in order to compete.[12] According to one study, a result of this competition has been that almost 50 percent of high-ranking women in male-dominated fields have drinking problems .[13]

As noted previously, women face particular constraints on their drinking: sloppiness and loudness are less well tolerated from them than from men.

An additional caveat for women has implications further down the road: recent research indicates that many women lack a specific stomach enzyme. As a result, they  develop a higher blood alcohol level than men who drink an equivalent amount. In the long run, these women have an increased vulnerability to the toxic effects of alcohol.[14]


Alcohol in the Professions


The law seems to be the highest-risk profession for alcohol abuse.Among those who have practiced between 2-20 years, 18 percentdeveloped problem drinking; 25% of those with more than 20 years experience are problem drinkers.[7] According to the records of the American Bar Association,  15-18 percent of lawyers abuse alcohol or drugs.

Altering drinking norms in the legal profession, and indeed treating attorneys, proves to be very difficult. These individuals have great argumentation and advocacy skills, and are enormously talented at keeping people at arm's length.

Medical Fields

According to the New York Education Department's Professional Assistance Program, 80 percent of the licensed professionals affected by alcohol or other drug use are nurses, 10 percent are pharmacists, and five percent include other professionals” licensed under Title VIII of the New York State Education Department. [15] According to Terry Bediant of the American Medical Association, 60 percent of the professionals in the Physician's Assistance Program use alcohol as their drug of choice.

Bediant noted that over the past five years there has been a dramatic shift in public drinking norms at AMA-affiliated conferences. Gone are the open bars and decanters of wine on every table. Now, parties offer free coffee and soda, and a cash bar. The shift, he believes, has come about because within the profession, there has been an increased focus on how physicians are perceived. People call to report observations of impaired physicians (colleagues or community members may initiate the calls). Moreover, in part as a response to educational efforts, there is an increasing recognition that impairing one's own abilities to make life-or-death judgments is probably not such a good thing. 


While executives are generally stereotyped as intelligent decision makers, in control of their work in the face of rapidly changing contexts, many are alcoholics.[16]. Studies found:

·          Twenty-six  percent of the affluent drug abusers held significant professional/managerial jobs.

·          In a company of about 5,000 employees, chances are that 15 of the 250 top executives are alcoholics.

·          Almost 10 percent of highly placed executives are drug or alcohol impaired or both. (This proportion is not very different from that in the overall workforce.) [16]


Drinking in professional circles is in fact a norm—and in many professions, it is virtually necessary for career advancement. While it would be better for all concerned if that norm would disappear overnight, it is unlikely this will happen. Thus, rather than advocating an "abstinence despite pressure" approach, I believe a "harm reduction" model is more appropriate.

Some organizations—like the American Medical Association—have already made inroads along these lines in controlling their members' substance use problems.  They have begun to teach members about the importance of controlling alcohol and drug use, and about recognizing impairment in colleagues. They have also created assistance programs to help individuals before they reach a level of impairment that could threaten their patients and their accreditation. And they are slowly changing the norms about what constitutes appropriate behavior at social functions, by removing easy access to alcohol.

It has, in fact, become acceptable in all circles for a physician to turn down a drink because she or he is "on call". That seemingly simple change has decreased the pressure for all physicians to drink.[17]

Individuals who are not as tightly connected with an association that is actively focusing on helping members to consider cutting down could consider some of these methods of partaking without over-indulging: 

·     A female state legislator always orders one scotch with the men, then switches quietly to water in her glass. She looks like she's drinking. But she has an advantage in negotiations.

·     A consultant drinks the first glass of whatever the "normative drink" is, and makes a show of ordering the second when everyone else does. From there on in, he will allow the waiter to take the partially finished drink and "refresh" it whenever a new round is ordered. The method is expensive, but no one notices that the drinks go practically untouched; he seems to be drinking as much as everyone else but in fact only has 2 or 3 drinks in the course of a very long evening.

·      An executive observed early in his career that when he'd go out with competitors or distributors, and they drank a bit too much, they'd also say a bit too much in response to his well-timed questions. He controlled his own drinking so he didn't lose the upper hand. But he "walked the walk and talked the talk" of a fun guy, so he was always included in social gatherings when the competitors were in town.

Self-Awareness: Drinking to Win

Substance abuse researchers and clinicians believe there is no such thing as “learning to hold your liquor”. Such "learning" means that your body is developing tolerance--your body requires more alcohol to achieve the same pleasurable state you were able to get with less alcohol earlier. Tolerance is usually considered a first step towards alcohol dependence.[18]

No matter the strategy adopted, every individual should consider his or her own relationship to alcohol—perhaps with the help of friends inside and out of the profession. Some questions to ask yourself:

·     Why am I having THIS drink? Do I NEED this drink to feel good about myself?

·      Do I drink as my main method of reducing stress?

·     Am I comfortable around these people without my drink?

·     Do I drink more than my friends outside my organization?

·     Do  I remember what happened last night?

·     Do my friends comment on my drinking?

·     How has my drinking changed over the past year? Past five years?

·     Do I drink when I intended not to?

·     Do I drink more than I intended to?

If you are not happy with your answers to these questions--or if your answers differ from your friends' evaluation of your situation--you may want to reconsider your use of alcohol. If you need help doing this, you can seek confidential help from your organization's Employee Assistance Program (EAP), your profession's assistance program, or from a private therapist (to save valuable time, request a referral to someone who specializes in working with professionals with alcohol  or other drug issues).



[1] Drug use is a related issue, of equal importance. However, the illicit nature of drug use brings additional complications to the mix which will not be considered here.

[2] Paton-Simpson, G. (2001). Socially obligatory drinking: a sociological analysis of norms governing minimum drinking levels. Contemporary Drug Problems (28), 133-177.

[3] Berger, M. C. & Leigh, J. P. (1988). The effect of alcohol use on wages. Applied Economics, 20: 1343-1351.

[4] Paton-Simpson, (2001). op. cit.

[5] Berger & Leigh (1988). op. cit.

[6] Hein, Dale (1996). The relationship between alcohol consumption and earnings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol,  57: 536-542.

[7] Jersild,  D. (2001)Happy Hours: Alcohol in a Woman's Life.  NY: Harper Collins.

[8] McNeece, C. A., & DiNitto, D.M. (1998). Chemical Dependency: A Systems Approach. NY: Allyn and Bacon.

[9] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, IV.

[10] Some families may have a secret about relatives' drinking—and in fact, a direct descendant may not drink because of his or her knowledge of the drinking problem. But the secret keeps that information from the next generation—who may therefore have no clue that a tendency towards alcoholism runs in the family

[11] A.A. Fact File (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.  World Wide Web. http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org/english/E_FactFile/M-24_d3.html Retrieved October 5, 2001.

[13] Spiegel, B.R., &  Friedman, D.D. (1997).  High-achieving women: Issues in addiction and recovery, in S.L.A. Straussner and E. Zelvin (Eds.), Gender & Addictions: Men and Women in Treatment. Chapter. 7  (pp. 153-166). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

[14] Baraona, E., Abittan, C.S., Dohmen, K., Moretti, M., Pozzato,G., Chayes, Z.W., Schaefer,C., & Lieber, C.S. (2001). Gender Differences in Pharmacokinetics of Alcohol. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, April, 25(4), 502-507.

[15] Alcohol and Substance Abuse in the Workplace (2001). New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. Available: http://www.oasas.state.ny.us/pio/ publications/fs12.htm  Retrieved 2/9/01.

[16] Cohen, M. (1997). Substance-abusing male executives. In S.L.A. Straussner and E. Zelvin (Eds.), Gender & Addictions: Men and Women in Treatment.. Chapter 18 (pp. 412-425). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

[17] Bediant, personal communication

[18] McNeece & DiNitto, (1998). op. cit.

Copyright 2001 ZevGroup. Further information about the contents of this report is available upon request from Jennifer J. Halpern, Ph.D.