Business and alcohol have gone together ever since ancient Egyptian workers spent all day laboring in the fields, had beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and were paid in beer. And although most workplaces today would frown on an entirely beer-based diet and compensation schedule, the value of alcohol as a social lubricant is still recognized at after-hours parties and networking events.

The MidJersey Chamber of Commerce will hold a beer tasting networking event on Wednesday, August 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Boat House at Mercer County Park. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit www.midjerseychamber.org.

Nora Kashinsky, a counselor with the Mercer Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, says that after work is the most sensible time to drink with co-workers or fellow business people, whether it’s for a networking event, a holiday party, or another social function (as long as you’re not driving a company car.) Most businesses big enough to have a written code of conduct forbid intoxicants on the actual site of business, and during business hours, in order to limit liability. Even so, she says, there are risks to combining drinking and working under any circumstances.

“I can remember working for an organization that was having a going away party. We were celebrating, and one or two people on the lower rungs of the ladder would drink enough that one or the other might get in the face of the vice president and tell him what they really thought. I would consider that problematic.” Kashinsky says.

As head of the council’s Metro Employee Assistance Service, Kashinsky provides short-term counseling for employees of a number of area companies, who either seek counseling themselves, or who are referred by their employers. As a veteran of workforces in several states, she has observed firsthand how drinking culture has changed in the last few decades, and how much it can vary from workplace to workplace.

Kashinsky grew up on Long Island, where her father was a railroad conductor and her mother was a librarian. She studied chemical engineering at Drexel and became an air pollution control engineer for the city of Philadelphia and later worked for the commonwealth of Massachusetts. She left government to work at a Fortune 500 company in New Jersey where alcohol was a big part of the culture, she says. “I had a boss that if you wanted to talk to him, you had to do it between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. because after lunch, he wasn’t going to be in his best decision-making mode,” she says.

During that time, Kashinsky got cancer and got divorced. After surviving cancer, she decided to make a change in her career. She went back to school, earning a master’s in counseling at Rider and working for an outpatient treatment facility. She has been working full time as a counselor for MEAS since 1999.”Employee assistance helped me over the bumps in my life,” she said. “The point is to get people before they get addicted. To help them before they lose their houses, families, or jobs. I listen to where you are, I listen to where you want to be, and I support and encourage you to make the changes you need to make to get where you want to be.”

Signs of Abuse: Signs that an employee has an alcohol problem include missed deadlines, reports with missing information, or other signs of negligence, taking long lunches and not coming back, taking days off after paydays, and general unreliability. Depending on how key the employee is, it could be a problem for the individual or for the entire company.

Since alcohol impairs judgment, drinking on the job can easily lead people to make bad decisions.

Get Help: Kashinsky says that for some jobs, such as a commercial truck driver, there are no second chances for drunkenness on the job. But for many other professions, it makes sense for an employer to provide help for them to get better. “Many people who have issues with alcohol are very intelligent, caring, and capable employees,” she says. “Getting alcoholism addressed is a good idea because a person can return to being a capable, competent, and productive employee.”

Often times, an employee who drinks will have a great deal of institutional knowledge that’s not written down anywhere, and may even be irreplaceable. See sidebar for advice on how to get help.

Social Pressure: Kashinsky says that drinking in the workplace can be a big problem if anyone feels under pressure to drink in order to get ahead in their careers. Even going out for drinks with coworkers after hours could cause issues. If people are drinking buddies, or are part of a clique of people who go out drinking after work, then there could be a question of whether any promotions they get are related not to their ability to perform at work, but their ability to perform after hours.

Kashinksy says that drinkers, even if they can have a drink without going overboard, should not pressure others into joining them, since not everyone can drink without it becoming a problem. “We hope people are smart enough that if somebody says ‘thanks but no thanks,’ not to lean on them. It’s like pushing cheesecake on a diabetic. Why do we push people to drink?”

“There are plenty of places where people drink,” she says. “If you have 10 people and nine of them drink responsibly, but the 10th one doesn’t, how does a company protect itself from that one person putting the company at risk? Other people have to cover for that person, pick up the phones, look up the data that’s missing. It puts a strain on the whole office, and people get tired of it. It doesn’t help the dynamic.”

“I’ve seen the damage it does to families,” she says. “I’m not saying that people can’t have a drink, but most people don’t drive into things when they’ve been drinking too much tea, or eating too many carrots. There’s something about alcohol that changes your brain.”

#b#How to Get Help#/b#

How to Get Help

How can employees get help if drinking becomes a problem? When they are covered by medical insurance the easiest way is to look on the back of their medical insurance cards and to call the number that appears for Behavioral Health Services or Member Services. Then they would tell whomever answered ‘I believe that I am having a problem with alcohol and I need help’ and write down the telephone numbers they receive for treatment programs within their networks.

If the person does not have medical insurance, they can call 800-238-2333, the Addictions Hotline of NJ. Operated under a contract with the state Department of Human Services, this line will connect the caller with a person who provides telephone numbers for addiction treatment centers that accept county/state funds for addiction services.

To protect themselves, employers who suspect one or more of their employees has a problem with alcohol/drugs must sit down and document the reasons for their suspicions, detailing the effects the employee’s perceived impairment may have on the workplace and co-workers. It is important to thoughtfully prepare the remarks they plan to use when presenting the information to the employee, and that the employee’s direct supervisor be present for the interview as a witness, and because they interact with the person frequently.

It is not advisable that an employer say to an employee “You’re an alcoholic and you need help” because there may be aspects of Americans with Disabilities Act that would entangle the employer.

The employer is in a better position when s/he says something like “you have been a good employee in the past. However, your performance has been faltering lately. I don’t know why, and I don’t need to know why, but your reports have been late, inaccurate and incomplete. We have designed a performance improvement plan for you and will be meeting with you regularly to assess your progress. As one of the parts of this plan, we are requiring you to seek counseling. We don’t want to know what you and your counselor discuss, but we do want written confirmation that you are working with a licensed professional. Counseling is available through our insurance plan.”

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