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The trick of doing deals over drinks: Use your head when bending an elbow

If there’s a long line anywhere, most of us avoid it. Yes, I am readily raising my hand as an accomplished long-line avoider, but there are a few places where long lines are the norm and everyone seems fine with it.
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If there’s a long line anywhere, most of us avoid it. Yes, I am readily raising my hand as an accomplished long-line avoider, but there are a few places where long lines are the norm and everyone seems fine with it.

Starbucks or McDonald’s drive-up windows? Not quite. I’m talking about the lengthy wait at every business conference I’ve attended during the past several months — from Denver to Denmark — and cities in between.

The large queue I’m referencing always forms during the opening reception. You guessed it — it’s the line at the bar. There’s a choice to start with food or drink, but beverage lines consistently grow faster than any other backlog at these events.

Given the above, the business of drinking while doing business flourishes around the globe, with good reason. Major deals are conceived, composed and closed while swirling an olive in a perfectly chilled martini or biting into a spinach puff pastry appetizer.

Liquor invites an atmosphere that dials down stress and turns up fellowship. As part of business socializing, consuming alcohol is much like working the right balance of barley, malt and hops into a well-crafted beer. When it’s beautifully blended, it can yield remarkable results.

With this in mind, here are five fundamental drinking tips for those who are tipping a glass in a business setting.

Decrypt the drinking code

Acceptable standards for business drinking in different industries and diverse nations must be understood before you bump up the bar tab. The easiest code-cracking method? Ask, don’t assume.

Many companies have and enforce entertainment policies that you will want to review. Where and when do they consider alcohol appropriate? Almost never in the office, except for special celebrations, company-sponsored beer bashes or what’s defined by management. Other organizations may follow the boss’s lead. Whichever the case and prior to a gathering, you’ll need to understand what’s expected and imposed when it comes to your organization’s drinking culture.

Find out from your teammates or manager. Cocktails to kick off the evening, along with wine served with the meal, may flow at different rates of consumption and expense, depending on company and country cultures.

Drinking or not?

We all have a drinking preference — religion-based or otherwise. Relationships, personal and professional, can be built or blown on how well imbibing preferences mesh or melt down. Whether at a conference or joining your group for a beverage after work, business cultures can make drinking together a crucial part of fitting in.

Peer pressure also may push you to the bar. What to do? Even if you don’t drink, you need to join in with a non-alcoholic option (try club soda and lime), particularly when traveling for work, or periodically when going out as a team.

Don’t want to bother? Think again. Non-joiners can convey a vibe of being standoffish or not interested in building camaraderie. Go out with the gang, order a beverage of some sort — alcoholic or not — and get with the program. Keep your teetotaler preference on the down low if you like. Avoid being fussy, yet still have fun with the rest of the group. You’ll develop broader friendships and better collaboration as a result. When it comes to these benefits, yes, you’ll have a double.

Trouble begins brewing when blending business with drinking to excess, which begs the question: How much should you drink? You’ll drink only what you can professionally handle, right? For many, this is easy to say but tough to do.

Once you get started and drink too much, it can be like opening a spigot on a big barrel of wine but, in this case, far too much begins flowing from your mouth. You’re sharing extensive information at an elevated volume. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous things I’ve heard colleagues say when they’re inebriated.

The obvious nasty side effect from overindulging (we won’t go into the hangover) is it makes you look bad. Once your buzz is in full bloom, you’re no longer sharp and on top of your game. Never drink and drive, either. Do yourself a favor and drink only half of what you think you can handle and let other poor slobs make fools of themselves, not you.

Drinking dilemmas

Even though drinking is deeply ingrained in business socializing, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with uncomfortable consumption scenarios. If a manager or associate has liquor issues, this can easily spill into imbibing or intoxication at the office — a huge no-no.

What should you do? Avoid the person involved if you can. If it’s your supervisor, you have a greater issue. Inappropriate conduct from anyone should be reported to human resources or another reliable workplace authority.

Anxieties over negative repercussions for reporting an infraction may put you in a tough spot from all angles. Ask trusted colleagues for input, and you’ll likely learn you’re not the first recipient of bad behavior from the involved boss or co-worker.

You’ll need to decide the best action to take, which may include finding another position as a final option. If you’re the person with the drinking problem, look into your company’s employee assistance program for help.

Delivering a toast

Part of your competence for business-related drinking should include being prepared to share remarks when called upon, particularly when you’re the host or ranking executive in the room. I’m talking about making a toast. You may be thinking, ‘Bah, humbug, what’s the big deal about making a toast?’

Hold onto your beer-induced babble because it is a big deal. Here’s why. A well-structured and eloquently delivered toast can set the tone for an extremely successful event, as well as punctuate appreciation for those attending.

In fact, the speaking club, Toastmasters International, has a set of tips and techniques focused on creating and sharing the perfect toast. Yeah, they do. Make a point to put quality time into preparing a high-caliber toast that complements the gratitude you have for your high-value guests.

Sharing food and drink as part of celebration and collaboration has been part of the essence and energy of creating corporate connections since the beginning of business itself. Like the sizzle with a steak, the alcohol aspect of partying plays a special role in how well a gathering is experienced.

Use these tips to responsibly make the most of your industry’s drinking culture and help you avoid the pitfalls of overindulging with liquor and your expense account. Don’t be like a kid in a candy store when it comes to the open bar at the office-sponsored party. Instead be the judicious participant who is knowingly munching on morsels and consuming cocktails at a well-paced rate that is best for you.

Enjoy your next conference, and escape the lengthy queue at the bar by picking up a plate before you partake in a beverage. You’ll have a great time, and the bar will still be there after the long line is gone.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.



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