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The Three Martini Lunch

June 16, 2016



Judy’s first job since recently graduating from university was everything she had hoped for. Her colleagues were bright, experienced and thoughtful, the work was intellectually stimulating and she was gaining valuable experience. But she was dreading her Friday lunch outing with her colleagues.


During her job search she had been advised and read widely not to have an alcoholic drink over lunch or dinner with a prospective employer because it sent the wrong message. However, she had heard that her colleagues regularly went for an end of week lunch together to talk about the week and many would have a beer or a glass of wine (or two) before returning to the office. It wasn’t an extended boozy “three martini lunch” as illustrated by the TV show Madmen but she wasn’t sure how to handle it as she wanted to fit in with her new team yet felt uneasy about having a drink with lunch on a work day.

By all accounts, drinking over lunch before returning to work has fallen out of practice. The same goes for the excess of senior executives and sales people pounding back drinks and lavish meals at midday from years past. Add to that the increased safety sensitivity of many workplaces and the damming impact even the most modest level of impairment or blood alcohol can have in a workplace accident investigation. For others the concern shifts to what messages are sent to customers, patients or students when staff have alcohol on their breath.  


I recently asked a roomful of middle managers and front line supervisors in another of my highly unscientific, statistically questionable surveys. Only 20% felt it was appropriate to imbibe over lunch. Those opposed to the practice were concerned about safety, professionalism and the employer’s reputation. They were also troubled by extent to which lunchtime drinks could impair judgment and cognitive function the corresponding impact on productivity and performance.  


The more contentious issue of whether an employer should have a policy banning alcohol consumption over lunch saw a slight majority saying yes while cautious about the fact that the employee is on their time and the obvious privacy issues.  

In one recent case, Ontario courts found that having a glass of wine with lunch is not deemed to be misconduct and therefore is not grounds for dismissal. A BC employer’s attempt to ban modest lunchtime drinking with a meal was widely seen to be “overreaching”.


Sound HR practices, legislation and jurisprudence argue that any offsite conduct needs to be viewed through the lens of how it impacts job performance, the employer’s reputation and the employer’s requirement to provide a safe workplace. I suspect this issue is no different.


Judy’s dilemma is consistent with the fact that lunchtime drinks no matter how modest are poorly viewed by many employers regardless of policy. There are exceptions and they may be generational, a function of the job as well as cultural or geographic. If you have done business in Quebec or many parts of Europe, wine is a given over lunch, period; though my colleagues tell me that things are changing there too. And many would argue that the chance to have an alcoholic lunchtime beverage with a client away from the formality of the office or boardroom is an exceptional opportunity to forge or cement relationships.  


What Judy did notice at her Friday lunch with colleagues is many, in fact most, passed on the pitcher. They cited quite matter of factly that it would slow them down in the afternoon, induce drowsiness or that just wasn’t their thing opting for healthier choices. Judy had a fizzy water with lemon and fit in just fine to her great relief. Cheers!

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