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Happy hour -- career friend or foe?

  • Story Highlights
  • Happy hour can be an important tool in creating a bond between co-workers
  • One in five workers attends happy hour at least once a month, survey shows
  • Survey reveals incidents where happy hour crashed and burned
  • Co-worker says to pretend happy hour is the "branch office" to stay proper
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By Patrick Erwin writer
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Some workplace environments may be competitive. Experts say to avoid matching co-workers drink for drink.

Some workplace environments may be competitive. Experts say to avoid matching co-workers drink for drink.

The term "happy hour" may have been created by the U.S. Navy to describe a designated period of time for entertainment and refreshment.

Of course, happy hour has long since become a universal catchphrase. People around the world know it as a time to unwind and imbibe after a long day of work.

But for some workers, their concept of "unwinding" can land them in hot water. Cynthia,* the CEO for a gourmet gift business, recalls one employee who was full of surprises.

"Several years ago, I hired a new employee around holiday time. I took my staff out for happy hour, hiring two limousines. After a drink or two, I was looking for the new employee so we could present her with keys to the office, a welcome ritual we do for management. I found her in the limousine, with the driver, getting very 'acquainted' on my Burberry Coat!"

Get happy

Happy hour is intended to be jovial and relaxing, and can be an important tool in creating a bond between groups of co-workers. But, despite good intentions, there are some "unhappy hours" where the good times go bad.

A recent survey offers a snapshot of our happy hour habits. Here's what it found out about our post-work festivities:

• One in five workers attends happy hour festivities with co-workers at least once a month.

• Eighty-two percent go to bond with co-workers, while 11 percent go specifically for quality time with the boss.

• Fifteen percent of the attendees were all about the office gossip.

• Men and women were equally likely to attend.

• Workers ages 25 to 34 had the highest attendance across all age groups.

The survey revealed a number of incidents and events where a worker's happy hour experience went from smooth sailing to crash and burn.

• Sixteen percent of those who responded said that they talked negatively or inappropriately about a co-worker or manager.

• Ten percent said they shared a secret or confidence about a co-worker.

• Eight percent kissed one of their co-workers, and another 8 percent admitted that they drank too much and acted unprofessionally.

• A surprising 5 percent breached a confidence or secret about the company.

• And 4 percent of workers admitted, with regret, that they sang karaoke.

The good -- and the bad

In some instances, letting your guard down in a misty haze of dim lighting and alcohol can actually be a positive. It can break the ice and ultimately break through communication barriers.

Bruce Kasanoff, now the president of personal development firm The Goal Mine, recalls a scenario when he was in college. He worked for some intimidating, strong-willed bosses doing stage crew work in the university's theater. At the end of the first season, the crew had a happy hour at the local pub.

Kasanoff, emboldened by a generous helping of liquid courage, approached one of his bosses and announced that he wanted to be the lighting designer. "She challenged me in a manner halfway between serious questioning and lighthearted flirting, as in: Do you think the likes of YOU can handle a big role like that? But eventually she looked long and hard at me, and said, 'OK, next season.'"

There are times where happy hour doesn't stay happy and things spin out of control. Most of us are levelheaded and responsible even if we are a little tipsy, but some people can lose their inhibitions -- and their self-control -- when they are in party mode.

In the situation Cynthia described, she had to take control when her employee had clearly lost her self-control. "She was terminated on the spot, and I deducted the dry cleaning of my coat from her first and final paycheck."

Sometimes, lack of inhibition just leads to uncomfortable misunderstandings. Christopher, who works in advertising, recalls asking one of his female co-workers, Susan, if another employee in the company with the same last name was her father.

The team members found this amusing, but Susan was not amused. The situation quickly snowballed into a comedy of errors. Another co-worker grabbed a microphone from the DJ booth and announced that Susan had "daddy issues" to the entire bar -- co-workers and all.

Here are some guidelines for keeping happy hour happy, while keeping your job safe and secure!

Be prepared

Make sure you have an idea of how you want the night to go. Take time to think about how long you want to be there. If you have a definite end time, stick to it. Have a mid-afternoon meal or snack so that you are not drinking on an empty stomach. Take a limited amount of money, too, so you can avoid the temptation to spend more (and drink more).

Draw the line

If your happy hour is always with the same group of co-workers, talk to each other and make sure you are clear about what will happen. Different co-workers may have different priorities, so figure out what works for all of you. Make sure any new "members" know what kind of vibe you and your co-workers enjoy when you get your happy hour on.

Pay as you go

To avoid misunderstandings or hurt feelings, the best practices policy is to pay for your own drinks. There are times that you will make exceptions (a co-worker birthday or going-away party, for example) but in general, paying for your own drinks avoids anyone feeling left out and avoids the perception of favoritism, which is especially important if you manage or supervise staff.

Drinking is not a team sport

Some workplace environments may be incredibly competitive. Avoid the urge to match co-workers drink for drink or shot for shot. (Buying your own drinks helps in this regard, too.) If your team is in it for the long haul, or intends to be out all night, alternate the booze with some non-alcoholic drinks.

Keep busy

Pick a place with some recreational options, like pool, darts or video games. You can hit happy hour in a bar that has electronic trivia games, which requires users to stay on their toes. You can also try having happy hour in non-traditional places that serve alcohol; a bowling alley offers libations while keeping everyone focused and involved in the fun.

Maintain the "branch office"

The best advice I ever got from someone about socializing with co-workers was from a co-worker who retired after 40 years of service. He had a lot of colorful stories to tell, but he told me once that he always thought of any event where he socialized with co-workers as being in the "branch office".

He avoided crossing any lines or violating any of the company policies. It may be tempting to say that "whatever happens at happy hour stays at happy hour," but friction and upheaval can spill over into the office and create problems for everyone involved.

*Some last names withheld to protect the guilty.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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