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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 20 February 2017

Remembering Lunchtime Drinking

So Lloyds of London announced last week that it is banning its employees from drinking at lunchtime.

Under strict new rules, anyone found to have enjoyed a pint between the hours of 9 to 5 faces the prospect of being fired for 'gross misconduct.'

Having frequently been in City of London pubs at the same time as some of these often boorish drinkers, my first thought was not to spare them any tears. The move comes in response to 50% of disciplinary incidents at the firm apparently having to do with staff members being over-refreshed. 

But whatever your views on our financial colleagues, just let that phrase roll around for a second: drinking alcohol during your lunch break is 'gross misconduct'. Not getting drunk. Not failing to complete your job because you're pissed. But having one drink. 

This ban is symbolic of the ever tightening stigma of drinking alcohol - and of changing public opinion - and I fear it's the first of many similar measures to come.


But according to YouGov, Lloyds are in line with public opinion. I guess I'm not. 

I started my first job in 1991, at an advertising agency in Central London. At that time advertising had a glamorous reputation, but that wasn't the reason I joined: I just wanted a job that would be different every day, one that would be interesting and intellectually challenging, and accountancy (which is what my university tried to push everyone into) didn't seem to offer that. 

I started as a graduate trainee in the middle of a recession, and to most of the people in advertising, this was the first recession they'd noticed, because it was the first that had had a serious impact on the south east. (Coming from Barnsley, I'd just assumed the early 90s recession was simply a continuation of the early 80s recession - I had no idea that some parts of the country had enjoyed a boom between the two.)

So advertising in the early 1990s was like turning up to a splendid mansion on a Monday morning and finding a Rolls Royce in the swimming pool, fag butts stubbed out in champagne glasses, TVs still smoking from having their screens smashed in, and my new bosses minesweeping empty bottles and greeting me with, "Man, I can't believe you missed the eighties. It was so great here then. We had such a party, a party like you wouldn't believe. Where were you? Now get this mess cleaned up, the place is a tip."

(Don't feel sorry for me. When I tell this story to people who work in advertising today, their reaction is along the lines of "There were parties here once? Bollocks, I don't believe you.")

But there were various hangovers of different kinds from that decade of excess. At least once a week during the 90s, the 'Jolly Trolley' would be wheeled down the corridor connecting our veal-fattening pens. It was someone's birthday, someone was leaving, someone had got a promotion, we'd won a new piece of business - there was always an excuse. Me and the other graduate recruits were usually too busy to join the festivities, but when we finished work around 8pm, long after the party had moved on to the pub, we'd scavenge the Jolly Trolley for unopened bottles to take home. For my first 18 months in London, I practically subsisted on stolen crisps, warm Budweiser and cheap, shitty champagne. 

Often, we'd have a mild buzz before the Jolly Trolley even appeared. Frequently, client meetings would run over lunch, and at 1pm a trolley that was only marginally less jolly, loaded with crisps and sandwiches, would be wheeled into the meeting room and unloaded onto the middle of the table. Behind this first trolley, a second full of wine and beer would follow, and people would crack open the booze without even breaking the flow of whoever was presenting acetates on the overhead projector. This was normal. No one even commented on it. From that point, we would drink steadily and moderately until the meeting was over. (I don't remember anyone ever finishing the meeting pissed.)

I can't remember when the drinks trolleys stopped. I didn't notice them becoming rarer and finally disappearing. But some time in the early noughties I was in a lunchtime meeting with Pret sandwiches and cans of Coke and I remembered the lunchtime booze trolley for the first time in many years. I realised that not only had it disappeared; if anyone suggested bringing it back now they would be censured for suggesting something so inappropriate. Somewhere along the line, without it being discussed, the idea of drinking alcohol in a daytime business meeting had become completely unacceptable. Everyone simply knew it was, just as everyone had known a decade previously that its was fine. 

Back when advertising was boozier, the ads were much better, and people enjoyed the job more. I'm not going to argue that the presence of booze was the main reason for this; all I am saying is that when people were drinking, the job still got done. Good ads got made and those ads did good business for the clients. The standard of work did not dramatically increase when the booze disappeared. People were made to work harder and longer, but if anything, the quality of the work they produce has declined. Just watch a commercial break if you don't believe me.

You should be able to trust grown adults to occasionally go to the pub at lunchtime without coming back to the workplace sozzled. If people drink at lunchtime to the point where it affects their work, then they should be reprimanded for it, but the crime should be the sloppy work or unacceptable behaviour, not the drinking itself.

Workplace drinking has beneficial effects as well as negative ones, and while there's no measurement of them, I suspect they're more widespread than the bad behaviour. A quiet pint can smooth things over, avoid problems, thank someone, share problems or create bonds. 

When I visited Japan for my book Three Sheets to the Wind, I discovered that beer solves an apparent paradox in the Japanese workplace. Japanese salarymen tend to give little of themselves away in the workplace, but will only do business with those they know and trust. How do you get to know and trust someone if the shields are always up? Beer symbolizes a switch from 'on' to 'off', a ritualised movement from formality to informality, to a time when they are permitted to bond and share. 

Maybe they don't do it at lunchtime, so it's not quite the same as the plight of Lloyds drinkers. But to ban lunchtime drinking outright, rather than punish any negative consequences of it, stigmatises drinking in general. And if you're lucky enough to still get a lunch break, it's your own time. If drinking is wrong at lunchtime, then surely it's not ideal at other times either? What next: a ban on evening drinking from Monday to Thursday to get rid of the detrimental effects of weekday hangovers?

I have no desire to get pissed with city boys. But thinking about it, and mangling a quote traditionally attributed to Voltaire, when it comes to their drinking, I disapprove of their twattish, drunken behaviour, but I will defend to the death their right to be drunken twats.

11 comments:

R said...

Spend time in various regions of the USA and you'll discover where various religious subcultures have ruined drinking for everybody.

Cooking Lager said...

My recollection that in the mid 90s as a grad trainee, lunchtime drinking was more than acceptable, it was required. You had to go to the pub friday lunchtime and you had to have a pint. There was something wrong with those that didn't. Liking a pint and happy that my boss bought me one, that worked out for me. Not so great for the one colleague that was Jehovah's Witness. There was social and therefore professional exclusion to those that excluded themselves from drink. Don't recall a Muslim colleague on that job though I have worked with many adherents to that faith since then, many of whom were in a bind. They realised the importance of these occasional social gatherings, but did not wish to be in pubs. You can't be inclusive to all and have a drink culture. The former is more important than the latter so the drink culture went. It's not a great loss and the gain was more inclusive teams.

Wind forward and these days office pub trips seem verboten. Without a word expressed. On the positive I work from home most of the week so if I want a drink there's no one stopping pub lunches or sitting in my own office with a drink.

Whether it's sad depends on whether you want to socialise with colleagues or whether you feel you have to. I've been in both types of job where I've liked & disliked colleagues. You can socialise with people you make friends with outside of work, off the clock.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

I worked for an American firm when I was a student in the seventies. They had a purpose built social club which was open seven days a week; team leaders would take their guys out for very long lunches after a successful contract.

The profits of the club were spent on hiring bands and an occasional "Beer Bust" where free drinks and steaks were offered on Friday afternoons. Happy Days.

Went back on a temporary contract a few years later. My boss told me that The head office back in the bible-belt had found about the club, and for "Health and Safety" reasons closed it down. The vibe was gone, tensions were high and it wasn't a happy workplace.

John Medd said...

I was always encouraged to take clients for a pie and a pint. Somehow the pie on its own doesn't quite cut it.

Chris Moxon said...

I started working for EDS in 1993 - at the interview; I was told that I couldn't drink at lunchtimes and asked if that would be a problem (coming from a firm that the bosses seemed to encourage drinking !!) - I thought about it and said that it wouldn't be an issue, as I would be driving to work anyway !!

First day on the job - a colleague asked if I wanted a pint (!) ... I questioned them and they said that they always had a pint at lunchtime ... so obviously not wanting to feel left out, I joined them. Upon returning to the office, I got summonsed to HR for a b****ing ... and found out that the people who asked me to go to the pub, were contractors; so had different rules !!

Next day, I was again asked if I wanted to go to the pub ... I thought about it and as these guys were the only folk I knew, I thought I'd go to the pub and just have a coke.

Back in the office, again summonsed to HR for another Bo&*&*Ing .... I told them that I didn't have a beer and just had a coke ... but they said that the temptation for a beer was there ?!?

That same day, there was a leaving do (for the last and only woman in the office !) - I went along and even there and then, no one dared to have a drink (on our own time ?!)

The next day ..... I resigned !!

Bailey said...

In my first job after university, as a web developer for a big chain based in West London, there was real pressure to go to the pub at lunchtime and as many evenings a week as my boss felt like it. It was a pretty terrible pub and quite often the tensions of the office would erupt after a few pints. I don't think it ever turned into an actual fight, but very nearly. Basically, the opposite of team-building. So there's that.

Alistair Reece said...

I must be insanely lucky as I work for a company where having a pint or two with lunch is barely even commented on, and all our office space fridges are liberally stocked with booze, we even have a kegerator in one of the break rooms. I imagine there would be open rebellion if they ever tried to implement this kind of nanny state nonsense.

Phil said...

I worked in IT and then in publishing in the 80s & 90s; I went freelance in 1999 and became an academic in 2004, neither of which involved any nine-to-five-ing. At my last 'office' job, peer pressure strongly encouraged going to the pub at lunchtime, three or four times a week, for at least one pint and more usually two. (There wasn't a lot else to do round there.) The main difference from my first office job, 13 years earlier, was that in those days peer pressure strongly encouraged going to the pub at lunchtime, three or four times a week, for at least two pints and more usually three. (And if a bit less got done in the afternoon than the morning, really, so what? It's not as if it was any different anywhere else.)

Anonymous said...

I worked in HMRC Customs House, near Tower Bridge, for a year or so in the mid-90s. Part of the canteen included a proper pub, beautifully appointed as befitting a 200-year old building. I am not certain on the beers but believe it had Courage Best and Directors, with all drinks priced at non-profit-making rates. Despite being only open for 2 hours at lunch, 2 hours in the evening, 5 days a week, and of course only open to staff and guests, I recall the bar manager (who also had a proper admin job elsewhere in the building) telling me it was one of the brewery's most profitable clients.

I wonder how much of both the pub and the culture survive there.

Graham

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

There was more drugs than booze at one place I worked, a quick line of speed to help with the early start at the printers for a start and then there was the writer out of his tree on E as I stood there demanding that they file their copy. Mind you, I do remember one press day when the editor turned up at the typesetters and took me and my assistant out for a beer — had five pints of Grolsch and then had to go back and proof-read the BBC charts. What fun. Having been free lance for 20 years, just don’t even think about a beer at lunchtime, but given that work involves a lot of travelling, on the other hand there are plenty of opportunities for early doors.

Paul Bailey said...

I too could add some tales of my own about lunchtime drinking during the 80’s; and could also continue with a few more into the 90’s when, for me at least, the practice had practically died out. However, it seems that most people have missed the main point of the post which is the rather draconian total ban on lunchtime drinking, imposed on its employees by Lloyds of London, and the creeping stigmatisation regarding drinking alcohol in any situations, let alone during one’s one free time. Presumably the lunch hour counts as “free time”, as it is normally unpaid?

Whilst I think that to regard the consumption of a single lunchtime pint as “gross misconduct”, is ludicrous, I do feel that Lloyds have simply taken the line of least resistance over this issue, and gone for a total ban. In doing so they have followed the examples of industries, such as the railways where, up until the early 80’s, there was a problematic culture of drinking. It may sound incredible today, but some of the tails I have heard from retired railwayman are enough to make your toes curl and, if you’d known about such things, you would certainly have thought twice about boarding a train!

A number of high-profile and unfortunately fatal crashes, brought this drinking culture to an end. A total blanket ban was imposed across the entire railway industry; irrespective of whether your role was “safety critical” or not. As with the Lloyds situation, a single lunchtime pint would be sufficient to get you the sack. A friend who had once described “five pint” Friday lunchtimes (he worked in a clerical role fortunately), told me that not only did such activities cease immediately, but if a colleague was leaving/getting married/retiring etc, all those wishing to go for a celebratory drink had to take a half-day leave, and take coat, hat and any bag with them. They were not allowed back onto the premises; office or otherwise, until the following day. Again, this was under the threat of instant dismissal.

Now I’m not saying that insurance underwriting carries the same risk as being drunk in the signal box or driver’s cab would, but if Lloyds have experienced issues due to staff being “over-refreshed”, then I can sort of understand where they are coming from. Being allowed just the one pint can all too often turn into a couple of pints, and then sometimes even more; so where should we draw the line?

Very occasionally I might treat myself to a lunchtime pint. It isn’t a problem at the company I work for, although very few people ever do indulge. I do find that even a single pint is likely to make me feel drowsy in the afternoon, and that my concentration tends to wander. Such afternoons end up being not as productive as I would like, so for these reasons I tend to avoid lunchtime drinking altogether, even though, like Pete, I would defend anyone’s right to do so, providing they are not employed in a safety-critical role, of course.