Why You Should Never Drink at a Work Conference!

Ah, drinking at work — the favorite pastime of the soon-to-be unexpectedly unemployed. But what about when your job sends you far away on your own, puts you in a hotel, and gives you a bunch of boring lectures to attend all day? Surely drinking is expected at a work conference, right? Well, no, not exactly.

What’s the worst that can happen if you drink at a work conference?

About the worst that can happen if you drink at a work conference is that you could end up broke, unemployed, and sitting in a Tijuana jail cell with the picture of an underage Mexican prostitute tattooed on your chest; but it’s probably not the most likely outcome. A more likely outcome would be that you say or do something stupid that embarrasses yourself or your company in front of your peers. That is not a great way to move up the corporate ladder.

The lowering of inhibitions that comes with drinking alcohol can lead to a number of decisions that make sense at the time that might not be in the best interest of yourself or your company. You might find yourself sharing privileged information with colleagues or competitors, making rude comments, or making unwanted advances toward co-workers and colleagues. Any of these behaviors might spell disaster for your career.

Can you “network” without drinking?

A major component of many conferences is the “networking” portion. For many people, networking means tossing back a few drinks with colleagues and dazzling them with how suave you are. But is that really the best way to do it?

Honestly, networking at a conference is designed around drinking to some extent, with the sessions often being held at a bar, and sometimes even an “open” bar. There’s a reason for this, though.

Conferences are often underwritten by people who are trying to sell things to your company, and those salespeople and consultants will be circling the networking area like lions looking for a wounded gazelle. In this case, the gazelle is the middle manager who’s had one too many to drink and is ready to commit to buying 100,000 left-handed staplers for their balloon-making operation.

The fact is, nobody requires you to drink alcohol. They serve soda, juice, and water at bars, too. There is a certain amount of peer pressure, though, and people who don’t drink in social settings can feel like people are looking down on them. A drink to loosen yourself up in an uncomfortable situation is not always a bad idea, either, as long as it’s done in moderation.

How much drinking is too much for a work conference?

So, accepting that drinking in moderation is not a horrible idea, how does one know if they’re drinking in moderation or drinking to excess? To make matters even more challenging, your perceptions begin to change with even the first drink, so that it gets harder and harder to know when you’ve had enough, or too much. It’s kind of like rolling a snowball downhill and expecting it to stop automatically when it gets as big as you want it to.

The rules for “when to say when” are pretty much the same for work conferences as they are anywhere else; it’s just even more important to follow them there. There are some tell-tale signs, like when you start to feel sleepy, or the room spins a bit, or when you forget how many drinks you’ve had. Perhaps the best test is to carry a picture of someone really unattractive—when you start to think about how you wish you could get them into bed, it’s time to quit. Pictures of Roseanne Barr and Quentin Tarantino work well for most people.

How can you cover your tracks if you drank too much at a work conference?

In spite of the best laid plans of mice and men, you might find yourself in a situation where you went and drank too much at a work conference. Assuming you didn’t end up in a Tijuana jail, you’re probably going to need to start working on damage control once the stories start coming back to work about you dancing on the bar or debating baseball’s DH rule with a potted plant.

First and foremost, gather as much information as possible about where you were, what you did, and who you were with so that you can offer your side of the story, or concoct a cover story that fits all of the facts. If it’s plausible, denial is often the best policy. After all, the person reporting you was probably drinking, too — maybe you can make them look like the drunken souse trying to cover their tracks instead of you.

When in doubt, remember these two words: “Cough medicine.” Your story could go something like “I was feeling really sick but I knew you needed me to step up and represent the company well, so I picked up some cough medicine in the hotel gift shop. It was really strong; I guess it hit me harder than I expected —  don’t know what I did during that conference.”

Drinking while your company is paying you to do something else can lead to disaster, and that’s even true while attending a conference. While drinking can be part of networking and drinking in moderation is probably not going to cause problems, too much drinking on company time can leave you scrambling to find a cover story that would make a CIA deep cover agent proud.