The big debate: is it appropriate for senior leaders to drink with employees?

As employers across the UK organise end-of-year events for staff, business leaders will need to consider how they approach such informal gatherings. Should they share a tipple with their employees, or are they better off abstaining? Here, two senior leaders share their thoughts

As we approach the Christmas season, many employers will be organising parties for their employees. It’s an excellent time to collectively celebrate the year passed and build camaraderie in an informal, festive environment. It’s also a time when senior leaders will need to consider how chummy they’ll allow themselves to be with more junior members of the organisation. 

On the one hand, after-work gatherings and company parties can be invaluable opportunities for mixing and mingling across company hierarchies. By sharing a drink with employees in an informal setting, business leaders can get to know their staff on a more personal level. This can help employees feel valued as individuals and increase a leader’s empathy and understanding of the variety of experiences across the workforce.

However, senior leaders also have a responsibility to maintain professionalism and clarity at work. Behaviours and actions taken in informal environments, such as after-work drinks or company Christmas parties, can lead to misunderstandings that spill over into the workplace. Business leaders must show that they’re relatable and approachable, but alcohol consumption unnecessarily increases the likelihood that they will end up in a potentially messy, and often risky, situation.

Although leaders may find it valuable to attend informal employee get-togethers – indeed, Christmas party attendance for many is a non negotiable – how should they approach alcohol consumption around junior members of staff? 

Sharing a drink at team events can help build open and honest relationships with staff

Katy Wright 
Chief executive, FCB London 

Any leader should go for drinks with their teams! Personally, I always enjoy it, whether it’s a glass of wine or something soft – it’s a chance to get to know each other better and for junior employees to ask questions that they might not ask in a more formal setting. And although I’m a CEO, I also have a boss, and I have a great appreciation for the times that we’ve been out together. Hearing their stories, adventures and advice has been critical for me, and it’s led to an honest, open and enjoyable relationship.

Our people work so hard, it’s really important that we make the effort to spend time with them and make them feel heard and appreciated. We have after work activities in the summer, such as agency softball and football, and we’ll all go for a drink afterwards. In that round of drinks, even if someone only has soda water and lime, you’ll still be chatting, and it’s not all about work. People want to feel like they’re part of something.

After-work drinks and company social events act as a leveller. Everyone is in the same place together

I love hanging out with our team. They’re incredible people and I learn something new every day. I’m constantly in wonder, they get me excited and they remind me why I do my job. If we win a pitch, the only people I want to celebrate with are those I work with. And I love to know their stories, their individual qualities, their hidden passions, their unique side hustles, or quirky stories about their family and friends. These individual stories and experiences enrich what makes the business: the people.

After-work drinks and company social events act as a leveller. Everyone is in the same place together, the drinks are the same price for all and no one is being rewarded more than anyone else. Of course no one should be forced to go and good leaders ensure there are plenty of other ways for teams to bond so everyone is included.

And, although I would encourage leaders to share some drinks with staff from time to time, it’s also critical to know when to leave. Timing is everything. You should not be the last one standing, because there may come a point that people decide to stay out only because you’re out, and that is wrong. It should always be an environment where people can come and go and no one feels that they’re under pressure.

Gary Hemming 
Commercial lending director, ABC Finance 

As an experienced manager, I approach the subject of business leaders socialising with employees with measured caution, leaning towards advising against such interactions in specific scenarios. This stance is grounded in a series of critical considerations that underscore the delicate balance required to maintain a professional and effective workplace.

Maintaining professional boundaries is paramount to effective leadership. Business leaders, as the standard-bearers of professionalism, shape the workplace environment. Engaging in after-work drinks or festive gatherings with employees, while seemingly innocuous, can inadvertently muddle hierarchical lines and compromise the essential boundaries that sustain a healthy working relationship.

The risk of misinterpretation looms large in informal settings, particularly those involving alcohol. Such environments have the potential to give rise to misinterpretations of intentions or actions, leading to strained professional relationships, rumours, or, in severe cases, legal complications. It is imperative to minimise the potential for misunderstandings that may arise in such social contexts.

The risk of misinterpretation looms large in informal settings, particularly those involving alcohol

Risk management and reputation are also critical considerations for leaders. The potential risks associated with alcohol consumption, such as impaired judgement and behaviour, could have far-reaching consequences. A single incident of unprofessional conduct can tarnish both the personal reputation of a leader and the overall image of the company.

Another key tenet of effective leadership is creating an inclusive work culture. Leaders must acknowledge that not all employees may be comfortable with social situations involving alcohol. It’s a leader’s responsibility to foster a workplace culture that accommodates diverse preferences and personal choices, ensuring that everyone feels respected and included.

Finally, the potential for favouritism is an inadvertent consequence of engaging in social activities, particularly with a select group of employees. Such actions can lead to perceptions of favouritism or exclusivity, disrupting team dynamics, compromising morale and eroding trust among the workforce.

In recognising the importance of fostering positive relationships among colleagues, leaders must tread carefully in navigating social interactions. It is incumbent upon them to ensure that the professional integrity of the workplace is maintained, and that all employees feel valued and included in the fabric of the organisation.