Beer

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Over the last few years, it has been a blast getting to know the NYC startup community.

I’ve taught classes and workshops on organizational culture and managing people, and enjoyed great conversations with founders and leaders.  I’ve done some good consulting work, too!

When talking with startups, and culture comes up, I usually mention one point of concern.

Beer.

There’s no reason to have beer.  On tap.  In your business.   Unless you own a bar.

This opinion has led to many memorable exchanges.   The most heartbreaking, probably, was with a great young woman in my circle.

“Devs need beer,” she told me.

I was floored. And wanted to understand, so I asked around a bit.  Someone — maybe this same woman, this was a while ago — opined that beer in the office had roots in the frat houses that some of the younger guys had recently left behind.

(NB:  Investors aren’t backing frat houses.)

Check out a few companies that are currently hiring.    Notice their lists of amenities, beyond the tech, the awesome people and the space.

Beer.  Beer.  Snacks.  And Beer.

(Disclaimer:  I drink beer.  Guinness.  But not at the office.)

Now, when I mention my concern to founders and leaders, I’m usually told that they’ve got it under control.

Seriously.  Take work.   Add competition and the drive to achieve.  Add being tired, stressed, and wanting to bust out and unwind.  Mix in some hormones and inexperience.

Add beer.

It’s a recipe for mixed signals, disagreements, misunderstandings.

Alcohol impairs performance, judgement, motor skills, and then some.   (True story:  more, here.)

And beyond that, no matter what you feel about the frequency of harassing or predatory behavior, it’s far likelier to happen when alcohol is present.

If you read something on the internet and think you really know what happened, put your hands on a copy of Rashomon.

Watch it.  Repeat if necessary.  Make sure you’re feeling the punch line:  you probably don’t know what happened.

The only thing you can add to that tragic, tragic situation is noise.

You can add value, though, by taking action.  Consider that your action could prevent a trainwreck in the lives of people you know:  think about what your devs really need.

In general, they’re people.  They need sleep.  They need a balanced diet.   Some exercise.   Sunlight, on occasion.

At work, they need problems to solve.  A solid team.  Understanding.   Belonging.  Leadership.  Great tools.  An environment where they can focus and get work done.

They don’t need beer.

Then really consider the role alcohol should play in your organization’s culture.   Maybe check in with an employment lawyer.

Then, get the damn kegerator out of your office.

And PS.  An apology.  To a CTO who’s my Twitter friend.   A couple years back, you sought out women to review your company’s recruiting website, because you weren’t attracting women.  You asked us, did the job listing look “sexist” at all?   My response at the time: looks good to me.  In hindsight, the problem might have been…beer.

Women, how do you feel about beer in the office?

10/16 edit: And men, sorry I left you out. What do you think?

Update, 10/17:   Thanks to Kirsten Lambertsen and mathattack for posting this to USV.com and HN, respectively.

And thank you for visiting to read and comment.   This has been a great learning experience!

Photo:  beer frame, by marya, via flickr, under Creative Commons license.

46 thoughts on “Beer

  1. This is a very thoughtful post, Anne.

    I count myself among those who love having a kegerator at the office, I must confess. But I’m 47 years old and learned to handle my alcohol a long, long time ago.

    If I was 22 and just entering the workforce now, the kegerator would be a very bad idea for me. I managed to avoid situations like the bodyshot story during all my years of being wild (and I was as wild as they get) and single. But, during those years alcohol was something I had to pay for, saved for the weekend, and something I wouldn’t dream of consuming at the office for fear of making an ass of myself.

    I would miss the office kegerator. But frankly, it’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make to keep all the wonderful young people I meet in this business from falling down a rabbit hole and doing something they deeply regret.

    1. Kirsten, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment.

      And yes, yes, yes. This definitely brought memories of situations in college/early 20s where, in hindsight, friends and I were fortunate.

      Sigh.

  2. I can imagine some of our employees enjoying the “hanging out” aspect of this and thinking that there was an opportunity to collaborate but TOTALY agree that I can’t see any positive outcome. A keg-a-lator (sic) is a bad idea and a big distraction but the idea of having one for a Friday night office party after a big success?

    1. Hey, I’m fun!

      It’s great to celebrate the wins. I’m not advocating prohibition.

      It’s more that we have to figure out where alcohol stands in a workplace culture.

      And we need to think about the ethical and legal burdens we take on, really with anything we allow into our office space, or when people are representing our organizations.

      (As an aside, I was talking with a Fortune 500 senior HR ex, and told him about kegerators in the office. Watching him listen to me, his jaw actually dropped.)

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. You know, Anne, i have come to accept the mention of beer as a startup amenity as normal, right there with foosball.

    Yet, there is a difference between beer and foosball, isn’t there?

    Beer is not neutral.

    So, I’d have to ask the question — What is the real purpose of having beer at the workspace? Is it just because it sounds cool or everyone else is doing it?

    So, let’s say there is a purpose. Is this purpose truly being accomplished? Is it worth the trade-offs?

    I am a drinker and I can say that I truly enjoy alcohol. However, my family history includes alcoholism so I am sensitive to how the presence of alcohol in an environment may affect some people. That is an important consideration. Alcoholism is more common than is widely known.

    I wouldn’t be that impressed by or excited about an office having beer.

    Okay, but then I am not the age of the typical startup team member.

    And part of my dilemma is that I am concerned that if I start raising points like whether or not beer should be in the workplace, that I will be perceived as out of place in the startup ecosystem. That I am too old.

    As of today, I am going to stop caring about this.

    My combination of age and wisdom doesn’t say “no beer” but asks the question “why beer”? And, perhaps, there are a lot of other questions we need to be asking about things that we take for granted about startup culture. Things that have become status quo. Status quo in the startup world is just as suspect as it is anywhere else.

    1. Donna, thanks.

      And I appreciate that you noted people from alcoholic families — of course. When I was pounding this post out in a fevered state yesterday, I failed to think of them. Or alcoholics, diabetics, people with religious convictions who don’t drink…a whole range of people who would might feel uncomfortable in the presence of alcohol in the office.

      (And the question at the end of my in post shouldn’t have just been directed to women. I’m going to edit that. Men could just as easily be uncomfortable with an office bar, for any number of reasons.)

      And yes, I was actually a little bit — or more than a little — afraid when I pressed Publish yesterday. For all of the reasons you mention.

      I wish I had had your quote as a mantra: “Status quo in the startup world is just as suspect as it is anywhere else.”

      Thank you for stopping by to comment.

  4. Hi Anne-
    I saw the convo on USV first, but i wanted to come over and add my point here, too. As I think we’ve talked about before, I find the whole ‘beer/kegger’ thing a bit of a brogrammer issue, and a way that startups virtually scream for only a certain kind of female– one who fits in as ‘one of the boys’.

    ….
    I’ve perceived a problem with the symbolic meaning of beer too … For me, as a white woman of a certain age, beer is not a ‘thing’ that appeals to me– any more. It triggers an association with a culture I’m not /no longer part of (e.g., brogrammers, hipster home brewers, televised sports fans, and so on).

    I don’t mind that there is fancy beer at coder/developer/engineer/startup/GeneralAssembly events, as much as I mind that there is nothing else. No wine, no sparkling water, no cranberry juice. Heaven help you if you’re a teetotaler, an observant Mormon or Muslim, or a member of some other group (e.g., recovering alcoholics), and you are passively made unwelcome because no other beverage is offered for free and with such enthusiasm.

    There is other questionable symbolism, too, but I’ll stick with just this one example.

    Not to say that we should find ways to share hospitality with each other as part of our organizational or professional culture– but it would be nice if drinking beer was not the main thing.

    1. Thanks, CV. The stereotype you mention limits men, too. Where does the mid-30s dad with young kids fit? Or the gay man? (Or the gay mid-30s dad with young kids?)

    2. I’m not sure how I’d feel about a kegerator in the office, but having beer around dates back to (for me) 1995 at HP. It was definitely a very masculine culture there (I am not sure, but I think I never encountered a female programmer in that office), but it wasn’t what I’d consider a “brogrammer” one– the average age when I came in was in the mid-to-late 30s, and they were pretty much all family-oriented guys.

      They only brought out the beer on Fridays after 3 or 3:30pm, and it was intentionally placed between the marketing and development groups. The explicit goal there was to facilitate informal conversations between those two groups that otherwise might never happen and it seemed to us to be fairly successful at that goal. Some time after I joined– I want to say it was ’98? Maybe ’99? HP discontinued the practice, and we did notice a marked decrease in the number (perhaps not quality, I don’t know?) of those informal conversations.

      At my current office, some of us sometimes have a beer late on a Friday; it’s a somewhat informal thing as to who provides it (never the company per se), and it serves much the same purpose as it did at HP, to facilitate conversations that might not otherwise happen between groups.

      That’s not to say there is no other way to facilitate that sort of environment besides adding alcohol, or that our perceptions back then were accurate; I just wanted to provide a counter-example of it being a specifically a thing for ‘one of the boys’.

      1. Thanks, Eric, for sharing your experience. It would be interesting to know why HP discontinued the practice…lost in the annals of history!

        It’s really important for people to have relationships with co-workers. It meets our human need to belong. (And for companies, it’s important, too, in terms of attracting and retaining people. For those interested in the backup for this, look for the Gallup 12 survey results.)

        So, the question is, are we doing the right things to make that happen? And there’s no single right answer here on that one…

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

  5. Good post!

    We have a beer fridge in the office. If we’re hosting a barbecue event in Summer or some other kind of social we can offer them out. We’re free to take them if we want. Very, very rarely does that happen – and we’re a hosting company with software and hardware folks, aged 20-40 on average, the kind of people demographically some might expected to be all for beer at work.

    Maybe after a hard day, a beer happens. But never, ever, ever during.

    Frankly, If you think you can work and drink, you’re mixing business with pleasure. Never a good call.

    Having a drink at work at the end of the day is a nice option to have, especially if there’s something to be thankful for (we fixed the issue, so-and-so is having a baby etc). It’s a case of knowing when it’s appropriate, and when it isn’t.

    If you don’t know when it’s appropriate to have a casual beer your sensibilities are way off. Worse, if you think it’s ok to be flat-out drunk in the office then you probably shouldn’t have a job at all.

    It’s not beer’s fault. Nobody forces you to drink it, either in small or large doses.

    1. Thanks, Sean. It sounds like you guys have good boundaries. If’ you’re going to have beer in the office, that’s what’s key.

      I appreciate your comment!

  6. Worked at a software company in London for 2.5 years while aged 22-24 and male, do drink beer, don’t like beer to be the main social activity of my life. Beer was the main social activity at the company.

    I don’t go to most of the “alumni” events because they take place in pubs and are advertised as…opportunities to drink beer. Blergh.

    (they didn’t have beer at the office usually, but they did hold some big, alcoholic parties there, and afterwards the leftovers were generally left for people to drink whenever. This normally didn’t occur at desks, but totally would in the early evening, while discussing work.)

  7. How about just having beer every other Fridays after say noon. I could see that increasing moral and cooperation between workers and releasing stress from a tough week.

    1. Luis, thanks for your thought. I agree with you — and, the main thing is having some kind of boundary.

      One function of “culture” is to communicate social norms. What’s acceptable behavior in your office tribe? What does it mean to belong?

      I appreciate that you stopped by to read and comment. Thank you.

  8. I would love to hear some feedback / stories where beer in the office has lead to unwanted outcomes.

    For me personally; I’ve been working with my current employer for two years now and we have two kegerators in the kitchen, and I account a large portion of the team unity and performance to having that responsible access to beer.

    I would say that it comes down to the person (age?), and not the liquid they are consuming, and yes, if your workforce is early post-college than you may need to re-evaluate the company-beer policy.

    Another observation is that beer in the office has reduced the level of professionalism between co-workers, graying the lines a bit.
    This has been good and bad thing for me, and I attribute it entirely to the in-office dynamics that come with beer (and ping pong, and a slide, and the bean bag chairs).

    1. Ask around, as I have. You’ll probably hear about stories where lines have been crossed.

      I wrote this post to generate conversation about about alcohol’s role in our companies, and in startup culture.

      Donna White does a good job earlier in comments of expressing some of the concerns and doubts that I think are good to discuss.

      Two things that are hallmarks of healthy culture: transparency around what it means to belong to the culture, and willingness to absorb and respond to questions about the culture itself.

      Thank you for stopping by and taking time to comment, Dan.

    2. And here’s a link to a bit of the discussion from HN. One of the comments offers links to relevant posts that describe what might go wrong with alcohol at work.

      https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6559929

      And of course, what might go wrong with alcohol at work is the same thing that might go wrong with alcohol, period. It can be problematic for a company, legally (and dare I say ethically) when the company is the bartender…

  9. The isn’t a necessity, but the social interaction is. Maybe some people work great in an extended vacuum but I believe for most people (myself included) interacting with other people on a regular basis is very important. Beer is not necessary for this, but it certainly creates a space with an atmosphere conducive to socializing. I see that as the point, not the beer for beers sake.

  10. Pingback: Beer | Rocketboom
    1. Another excellent point.

      And it complements Donna White’s remarks earlier in comments — are you really serving your intentions?

      Thank you for stopping by to comment.

  11. Like many others, we have a beer fridge we keep stocked for events, after hours get togethers, and the monthly company meeting. There’s no real restrictions to when a person can go for a beer, but most folks generally partake at *only* those times.

    I get a little skeptical when I see devs reach for them at other times. I love good beer as much as the next guy, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t improve my critical thinking skills.

  12. I can think of a situation where an outcome was less than desirable due to alcohol. I won’t share details here, to protect the innocent, but let’s just say that a certain conversation was both emboldened and somewhat inflamed by the consumption of a bit more beer than was strictly a great idea.
    And yes, this was in a coworking space which boasted kegerators on every floor.

    That said, like Kirsten, now that I’m in my 40s and am well past the stage where I can’t handle it, I actually love having a beer or two at the end of a long day, when I have hours more work stretching ahead of me. And miles to go before I sleep…

    My current coworking space doesn’t have a kegerator, but we do have a beer fridge and a rather respectable selection of scotch on top of the fridge. Thankfully, the environment is not bro-y at all even though naturally the men do outnumber the women…huge props to Shai Goldman for building & curating a civilized, respectful, gender-welcoming coworking community here in the city.

    1. Cynthia, thanks for adding your experience to this discussion.

      Of course! Most of us can probably think of at least one incident in our personal lives — if not our own experience, than someone around us — where alcohol poured fuel on a fire. How could it be much different at work?

      I haven’t given much thought to the challenges layered onto managing the workplace environment, in general, vis a vis co-working spaces. (Future blog post fodder?) It’s great to hear good things about your space.

      Thank you so much for stopping by and taking time to comment.

      1. A blog post about managing culture in coworking spaces would be really interesting–I’ve worked in four different ones–two WeWorks, Grind, and 500– and each has its own vibe.

  13. Where I worked beer provided two benefits. First, it stopped work for the day (at least for me, I can’t program when buzzed). If only food was provided, then people were still ‘working’ and distracted with things they were planning to finish up after the meet up. Second, it reduced shyness so quiet people were more likely to contribute to discussions and voice opinions. Offsite drinking worked too, but it isn’t as comfortable to me and never seemed to be as productive.

    I still don’t think beer at work is a good idea all things considered, but it did have advantages and some of the best ideas our group ever created where over an evening beer at the office.

    1. Roger, thanks so much for your insight on this one.

      It sounds like you’re saying that one benefit of “beer” was to create a boundary between the workday, and the start of work socializing. Socializing like this can be so positive in building a sense of community at work! And having a boundary between workday and the end of work, also a good thing.

      To me, one interesting thing that has come from this unexpected discussion seeing how many things we’re trying to achieve that are in themselves good things.

      I’m trying to wrap my head around all the benefits we’re trying to get from “beer,” and how else those benefits might be achieved. As Donna White said earlier in the discussion here:

      My combination of age and wisdom doesn’t say “no beer” but asks the question “why beer”?

      Thank you for your thoughtful addition to this conversation, and for taking time to comment!

  14. I currently work at a startup that has beer (and snacks), but doesn’t have dental insurance. Cannot wait to quit.

    1. I hear you.

      That said, the financial value of dental insurance is pretty low, given the caps on what insurance actually pays for. Snacks and beer: pocket change.

      Complaints about these “benefits” — or even pay — often serve as proxies for bigger sources of dissatisfaction.

      The question for people who lead companies: when people complain about snacks, or dental insurance, what are they really upset about?

      Thanks for stopping by.

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