The Death of Company Culture

Ed Zitron 11 min read

Every experience I’ve had drinking at work (specifically at my desk or in the office) has generally been negative. It’s not necessarily that anything bad happened, but it always felt like I’d crossed a certain line, inviting something from my personal time that’s inherently about relaxing into my professional life. When bad stuff happened as a result of drinking of the office, it usually happened around me, as a result of the guys in the office drinking and saying or doing something stupid, because they turned from their work persona into their drinking persona. This persona does not mesh well with everything from “being around other people” to “employment law.”

This is a vastly different thing from having a beer or a glass of something while banging out a few emails at home or having a beer with friends. The specific idea of regular, company-approved drinking at work is the problem, which is why I find the Wall Street Journal’s latest piece about its growth so utterly depressing:

[Jude Maboné, a] 26-year-old marketing professional in Washington, D.C., says her workday usually ends at 6 p.m., but on a recent Tuesday most of the staff called it quits and broke out the drinks at 4:30 p.m. Then there was a Thursday when her bosses—some two or three times her age—started scooping liquor-infused ice cream with the same alcohol content as a Budweiser at 2:30 p.m.

Ms. Maboné and her 20 or so colleagues have been back at their desks for about a month, and she has noticed alcohol is “always in the center of social things here.”

The company is trying to resurrect office camaraderie but a number of her co-workers don’t drink. “It’s funny that that’s such a heavy part of trying to keep people invested so you don’t lose them,” she says.

Let’s get one thing straight: this sucks. This is a terrible culture. Whatever culture you believe you’re building by making work a place that is ostensibly for drinking, you immediately create cliques based on how much one “participates” in your office culture, by which I mean whether or not someone drinks (or is seen drinking) enough at the office to “fit in.”

As businesses work to settle employees into offices, some are pulling out the stops—literally, on kegs, casks and wine bottles—in an attempt to make workplaces seem cool. Sure, executives could simply order people to return to their cubicles, and some have, but many want their workers to come back and like it.

That means giving people what they want, or at least what bosses think they want. People like to wear comfy hoodies, right? OK! They miss their dogs when they go to work, don’t they? The canines can come! They love an afternoon cocktail, yes? Check out our new office bar!

Sometimes I read articles from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, and I earnestly want to research whether the writer is a human being or some alien or robot. While these are two technically correct paragraphs that read in a way that conveys meaning, they also feel utterly disconnected from the world, mostly because nowhere in this article does anyone ever ask an employee what they want.

But anyway.

It isn’t that companies are encouraging people to get hammered … for the most part. WeWork’s famously over-the-top corporate culture eventually backfired on founder Adam Neumann, as depicted in the aptly named “WeCrashed” drama series on Apple TV+. Unchecked alcohol use has contributed to more than a handful of other Silicon Valley meltdowns. No smart leader wants to deal with such a mess.

Many do, however, want the office to feel a bit more edgy and exciting than it did before the pandemic. At a minimum, it has to be more alluring than the sofas, kitchen tables and spare bedrooms where so many people have been doing their jobs for the better part of two years.

Do you know who doesn’t want the office to feel edgy and exciting? Basically anyone who isn’t a white guy. Offices are already hostile toward women, people of color and LGBTQ workers, and that’s before you put alcohol in the office and tell people they can drink it. It does not take a lot of alcohol turn an asshole into a bigger asshole, or to bring up someone’s weird sexist or racist beliefs, or just generally make someone pushier or more emotional. It’s also an excuse to act in a certain way - overly friendly, overly dramatic, to “say stuff you were too scared to say,” all things that naturally lead to someone getting upset.

The flow of work-related alcohol follows a surge in overall consumption during the past two years. Americans have reached for adult beverages with gusto to face a deadly virus, volatile economy, manic housing market, isolation, inflation and countless other unsettling new realities.

Researchers say it is hard to pinpoint the time of day when people imbibe. But anecdotal evidence suggests the collective attitude has been “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

“I’d say 70% of the company was drinking by the end of the day” when fully remote at the height of the pandemic, says Mike Cavanagh, who leads a media technology business in Burbank, Calif.

I don’t know about you, but my reaction to hearing that people have been drinking more because of the horrors of the last few years is not “damn, I gotta get my workers drinking more!” Drinking is - in this case and many others - something you add to a situation in place of actually dealing with the problems of the situation itself.

A Cornell study found that alcohol consumption at work created a more than two-fold increase in the incidence of gendered harassment experienced by women at work for every alcoholic drink consumed by men in or around their work hours. Google had to change its policies after finding that alcohol played a part in 20% of their sexual harassment cases, explicitly forbidding excessive alcohol consumption at work or work-related events, specifically telling leaders not to encourage it. Tech has had a worrying relationship with drinking at work for years.

In short, drinking at work, while seemingly harmless, regularly leads to people doing stupid and harmful things to other people, and creates a hostile working environment for those who don’t want to drink at work. And yet the Wall Street Journal sees it as nostalgic:

Day drinking can be as much throwback as novelty. Christopher Minakowski, a 50-year-old lobbyist from Maryland, keeps decanters of Macallan Scotch in his home and corporate offices. He says they remind him of childhood visits to his father’s office.

“It was a normal thing in the ’70s and even the early ’80s that these guys would be having drinks at the office, which always blew me away,” says Mr. Minakowski, adding he is far more restrained than his dad’s generation.

Many workplaces cleaned up their acts in the ensuing decades, though it has long been common for tech startups and co-working spaces to keep a few brews on tap. (For some reason they always seem to be hoppy IPAs.)

You know what was also “normal” in the ‘70s and early ‘80s? Same-sex couples not being allowed to marry each other. Women could be fired for getting pregnant until the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and until 1993, spousal rape was legal. If we’re going to start wistfully thinking of the time when drinking at work was considered normal, we have to consider all the other things that we don’t do that they did in these decades, and perhaps consider that not drinking at work is societal progress rather than a forgotten joy of previous generations.

The #MeToo movement underscored alcohol’s potential to fuel toxic work environments. How many times have we heard about unwanted advances or touching after a couple of rounds?

Booze can blur the line between professional and personal relationships in ways that make certain workers—often less-powerful ones—feel uncomfortable.

And then there are the health consequences. Considering everything workers have been through since early 2020, “it makes sense that we are seeing an increase in alcohol consumption at different levels and workplaces, in particular,” says Jagpreet Chhatwal, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who has studied pandemic-era alcohol use.

It is astounding to me that this, probably the most obvious way in which alcohol causes problems in the workplace, is one of the last paragraphs in the article. The Wall Street Journal has managed to both-sides drinking at the office, trying to frame a “balanced” understanding that sometimes drinking at work is cool, even if it is extremely bad for many people.

It’s also extremely suspect that they got a professor who’s literally studied pandemic-era alcohol use and managed to get…one quote, one that isn’t particularly illustrative other than saying “yeah, people been drinking at work I guess.”

Another painful part of this strange piece is that it’s yet more proof that those demanding a return to the office never really cared about productivity. A workplace culture that is built around alcohol is one that inherently accepts that less work will be done, one that admits that being sober at work sucks (probably because working there sucks), and one that prioritizes the needs of those that drink over those that don’t.

I do drink, though significantly less than I used to. Alcohol can be fun, it can make you feel good, and it can taste good too. It’s also something that should not be forced on anyone in any situation - and, in general, you don’t want to put any policy in an office that involves lowering inhibitions, mostly because it causes people to say and do some of the terrible things they’re thinking in their head.

In the end, drinking at work is just another way in which management is trying to convince people that their work is more than a job, and their workmates are more than people that work at the same place.

Because company culture is just an abusive family that pays you.

The End of Company Culture

Forced drinking at work sucks. A culture built around drinking sucks. When your identity or culture is focused on drinking, you are actively trying to distance yourself from the world of sobriety. And as I’ve said above, it creates a hostile environment where drinking is a qualifier for acceptance, as well as dramatically raising the risks for anyone who isn’t a white guy.

However, in my mind this is a realization (and an act of desperation) caused by corporations realizing that office (or company) culture doesn’t actually exist. To quote myself:

The entire idea of Office Culture is entirely predicated on trapping people there. It is an inefficient yet satisfying way in which executives and managers find way to extra more labor out of people, with creative measures like “nap rooms” and free food to give them more reasons to stay and work unpaid overtime.

Company culture is if anything an extension of the same tools - it is a mechanism through which the company wields command over the intentions and actions of the worker to squeeze more out of them, and make them feel bad when they disagree with the company. Much like the definitions of why we need to be in the office, it’s an unwieldy blob that is dropped onto workers to tell them that they’re being bad - that they’re missing out because they’re not “in the office,” or “fitting in with our culture,” which usually ends with a manager or executive asking whether someone is “loyal to the company.”

Company culture exists to bring the unpaid responsibility traditionally reserved for families or romantic relationships to the workplace and is used as a means of standardizing behavior based on what management (or managers) want. Your ‘culture’ really comes down to what things you consider tolerable or intolerable, and what methods you use to control your workers.

Culture isn’t something you buy or build, but something that forms over time based on the people you hire and how you treat them - which includes, but is not limited to, how you deal with bad things they do, or what bad things you do to them. At best it’s an assumed and enforced series of values, and at worst it becomes a layer of industrial scar tissue, where people have been hurt but the hurt has been done so often that it’s now become the norm.

The reason companies are trying to shove drinking and dopey, expensive events into the lives of their workers is that they’ve realised that there really was no culture other than being trapped in the same room as each other.  Remote work didn’t kill company culture - it just proved that it never mattered, or even really existed beyond the tolerances and intolerances of those in power. Company culture exists to manipulate workers into believing that they owe something to the company other than their labor, and that leaving said company would be “letting someone down.”

This is why executives are pushing people back to the office - because, without physical presence, there really is no company culture. And when there’s no company culture, the only differentiator between you and another company is how much you pay and treat workers, which is more expensive, time-consuming and less satisfying than trying to con your workers into believing that their boss is their dad and their workmates are their brothers and sisters.

Company culture is used as a means of trapping workers at a job through guilt and peer pressure by adding societal responsibility to the transaction of labor for money. It’s also a way in which executives and managers can wield power by emotionally manipulating workers, making them feel guilty for not “being a team player” because they didn’t stay late or that they don’t drink with the rest of the team.

And, most importantly, executives too often have no real relationship to the work product of the company, and thus their idea of “culture” is an exercise in ego, where their values are pushed upon those below them. That’s why they’re making these weird, counterproductive moves to try and get people back to the office - because they have absolutely no idea what company culture (let alone their company culture) is.

Company culture as a term is also a nice euphemism for “what it’s like to work at a place.” A “good” company culture is one where you don’t mind being at work, and a bad one can take on many forms. Executives want to make it a monolith so that they can be responsible for something big and important-sounding without having to actually do anything, and by making a big, complex term, they’re also able to deflect responsibility by claiming that company culture is “not fixed overnight.”

The reason they want it to be complex is that fixing a bad company culture mostly involves firing people, standardizing ethics, and then maintaining said ethics. It requires having actual standards and sticking to them, which is a great deal of work and may require introspection and effort, none of which directly benefits the executive.

What company culture actually is is an attempt to create a micro-society where the boss is the President and you are a non-voting citizen that’s lucky to be there. It is an attempt to rewrite what’s culturally acceptable and then push those values onto other people, excluding those who do not adhere to the whims and desires of those in power.

In fact, perhaps the easiest way to view it is in terms of territory. When you’re in the office, you are in the boss’ realm, and the boss’ rules are a little easier to stomach in the same way that going to someone else’s house has its own norms. It’s much harder to sustain this level of corporate intimidation when the victim is in their own space that they control. Any time you’ve read a manager or executive talking about being able to have a “quick word” by “walking over to someone” is code for them being able to corner a person in their office, or humiliate someone in such a way that their colleagues can see and be afraid of.

The office allows those in power to wield their power in a way that resembles compensation - and without the ability to lord over people, executives and managers feel like they’re getting a raw deal. And that’s the biggest thing with company culture - it exists to establish, promote and sustain power structures.

Remote work also makes it much easier to record things that were said to you, which is horrendous for company cultures that like to make “edgy jokes” or dress down employees in an abusive fashion. Unlike the office, you can very easily catalog both sides of a conversation, or at the very least your part of the conversation, meaning that the burden of proof is on the manager or executive to show theirs.

I cannot express how little managers and executives want responsibility for their actions, and those “quick asides” at your desk are built both to blindside you with questions and remove the ability for you to easily create a record of your conversations.

The office allowed them to create a culture, alright - a culture that puts workers at a disadvantage, that promotes hegemony, and that rewards people that fit in rather than those who perform well. By having an office, managers don’t have to manage - they just have to exist - and executives don’t have to contribute anything other than showing up and sounding intelligent.

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