what does a bottle of liquor in the interview room say about an employer’s culture?

A reader writes:

I had an interview today for a temporary IT position with a product/service promotions company.  When the HR person, a person from the IT dept, and I entered the interview room, I saw a half full bottle of brandy sitting on the windowsill glistening in the sun.  When I pointed it out to the HR person midway through the interview she said, “We work really hard here and apparently we play hard too,” in an uncomfortable tone and with a nervous laugh.

I was later called by the recruiter to let me know they wanted me to start later this week. I pushed back with a higher hourly rate and am waiting to see if they can meet me at that hourly rate.  I’m not a drinker and don’t go to bars, etc., and am a little worried about what I saw.  I’ve never seen this kind of thing in a work environment.  Is this common?  Should I be worried?

I mean, I doubt that they’re doing Jello shots in the middle of the day or anything, but I suppose anything is possible. There are all kinds of potential explanations — from the bottle being left over from the holiday party to it being an office full of lushes.

What kind of sense did you get about the culture? (You did ask about the culture, right?)

In any case, I’d just ask the recruiter and/or the hiring manager (not the HR person) about it directly. Say something like, “There’s one thing that’s been on my mind — when I interviewed, there was a bottle of liquor sitting in the room, and it made me wonder if drinking plays a big role in the culture there.”

But even if it turns out that they have drinks in the conference room every Friday afternoon, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a culture where you wouldn’t feel comfortable. There’s a big difference between the occasional social event with alcohol where some people choose iced tea without anyone batting an eye and a culture where the CEO is passing out on her desk and interns are throwing up in the bathroom. You need to ask enough questions about the culture in general until you know which this is.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. Kyle

    Love the picture.

    My company is based overseas where the rules are obviously different. When I started 9 years ago they’d serve beer on Friday afternoon. It’s become mostly Americanized now, but they still serve drinks at a few company events on site. There is no pressure to partake. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  2. Talyssa

    Another post about drinking at work?

    I doubt its a big deal, outside of college age kids people understand that its a personal lifestyle choice to partake or not, so I doubt there’s going to be like, peer pressure.

    And the fact that the interviewer seemed uncomfortable when you mentioned it means they weren’t trying to deliberately shove it in your face. … Probably.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, I think we’ve covered drinking at work twice in two weeks (although very different angles) … but how could I pass up a chance to use that Mad Men photo? Just look at those eager young men.

  3. X2

    Wait, this is a temporary job… How temporary are we talking? Weeks? Months? A year? You definitely have to ask more questions to better understand the culture, but a less than ideal culture fit for a temporary position is not necessarily a deal breaker if you think you can put up with it for your duration there.

  4. The Plaid Cow

    I worked in IT at a marketing company and they tended to have bottles of liquor sitting around all over the place. They weren’t a bunch of lushes, they just displayed some of their clients wares.

    Or, another explanation is that the HR person had no idea why the bottle was there and tried (poorly) to use humor to diffuse the situation.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I hope that I will never in my life use the phrase “work hard, play hard,” but I can totally imagine myself making a similarly awkward comment in this situation, while trying ineptly to be funny.

    1. Jennifer

      That’s exactly what I was thinking.

      There are some industries where things like this are made available for client meetings.

  5. Anonymous

    I for one think you are reading way too far in to this. Nearly every corporate company I have worked at has had a nice bottle (or two) of liquor in the conference room or executive offices. It was within the norm for the executives to share a small drink (after hours, generally on a Friday) with management while discussing the events of the day/week. I never had the sense that there were alcohol problems or any pressure to drink. But a way for the executives to share a small thank you with the management staff who had worked hard and put in long hours. A sip of scotch seems fine to me…but maybe I’m not reading enough in to this practice myself!

    1. Jamie

      I’ve seen this in every company for whom I’ve ever worked – but I’ve never seen it used.

      I personally wouldn’t see this as any kind of red flag at all.

    2. Emily

      Another possibility is that the company recently held a party, either an in-house celebration (which tend to migrate into any space where groups can congregate together) or one for/with a client (which might have been held in a room that serves as a somewhat public space, like an interview room). I think the fact that the HR person reacted with contrition should put your mind at ease. The way you portrayed the exchange makes it sound like she was as surprised and even chagrined as you were to see the bottle there.

  6. Jennifer

    This has happened to me before. However, there were several other red flags that led me to not taking the jobs, not just the bottle of Smirnoff sitting on the interviewer’s desk. I think that if there are no other red flags, and if the interviewer seemed uncomfortable with the alcohol’s presence, the culture might be okay.

  7. Joey

    When I think of brandy I don’t associate it with people getting stupid and shit faced. Possible, of course, but likely, no. And the fact that it seemed to surprise the HR person probably means there’s little negative effect on the workplace. Now if it was tequila or say jaegermeister that would worry me.

    1. Natalie

      Really depends on the “shelf”. Certainly very few people are getting shitfaced on Louis XIII, but a bottle of E&J or Henny might give me pause.

  8. Marie

    “What does a bottle of liquor in the interview room say about an employer’s culture?” Ummm – nothing positive. Big red flag when the interviewer stated, “We work really hard here and apparently we play hard too,” ‘in an uncomfortable tone and with a nervous laugh.’ This does not sound like a very professional organization.

    Now, I *do* realize that when entertaining clients, for example, there are situations where it’s acceptable when liquor might be served. And, of course, company Christmas parties will usually serve liquor. However, if the office has booze bottles casually strewn about, this might be a warning of an unhealthy and unwholesome situation.

    I used to work for a company – a family-owned business – where the husband and wife, their grown son, and many of their employees (NEVER me) would swill liquor straight out of the bottle on a daily basis. The owners’ son would also snort cocaine very openly, and he never bothered to conceal this activity. I was shocked and upset (granted, I was very young at the time – only 19). Thankfully, this was a temporary assignment which lasted only two months. (I would have quit immediately, but I was broke and needed the money)

    *Note: I’m VERY sensitive to the issue of drinking on the job, because my dear, sweet father – with whom I enjoyed a very close relationship – was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at the relatively young age of 68; he routinely drank on the job and paid the ultimate and very tragic price for it.

    1. Jennifer

      I admit I have a similar reaction to open drinking and certain other behaviors, because I, too, lost a loved one to alcholism; however, I find I’m pretty easily able to tell when something like this is a potential problem and when it’s not.

      In this particular case, the statement, “apparently play hard too” and the nervous demeanor of the interviewer PROBABLY would have made me decline to take the position, but everyone is different.

      I am sorry for your loss.

  9. Piper

    Maybe I’m biased but I recently left a company where getting drunk every Friday, breaking into the warehouse next door, and driving home drunk was the norm. People would actually brag about how they didn’t remember getting home. It was like working in a frat house. (On a side not, I never participated in because it was so over the top and way passed a casual Friday beer). So, after that horrifying experience, I’d be inclined to be a little freaked if I saw alcohol. But that’s probably just my bias talking. Also, the phrase “work hard, plat hard” was often used in the office.

    1. Piper

      Eek! Excuse all the typos and misspellings in my previous post. Posted too fast from my iPhone.

  10. Ray

    I too worked at an ad agency where beer (or whatever your poison) was on the menu every Friday afternoon, and sometimes during the week. There was always alcohol in the break room fridge, and nobody said a word if you were in there at 3 on a Monday enjoying a beer, either.
    They were totally cool if you didn’t partake; many there were teetotalers.
    If it’s a creative company, I wouldn’t be concerned. This is how they operate. And they don’t expect you to be a follower (at least, not in my experience). So you’re most likely OK.
    http://www.staffingtalk.com

  11. Rachel - Former HR Blogger

    Coming from a sober organization…

    Based on the way the HR person acted I would assume they had no clue why it was there and that it is not a part of their culture. It’s not like the HR person told you that drinking is a daily part of the job.

  12. Anonymous

    It was just this morning that a co-worker and I were discussing how we could put a drink set-up in my office. I like the Mad Men look, but Al Swearingon had a nice set-up.

    At the end of the day, it’s an individual preference – what kind of office culture would you thrive in/enjoy/be motivated by?

  13. Bob G.

    If nothing else I appreciate that the OP is a glass “half full” kind of person….. :)

  14. Angela C.

    Worked at a CPA firm once. Owner liked to have one or two at the end of a long week. I don’t drink, and never had a problem after turning down the first one or two offers. However, I would stay and sip my soda after work to socialize with the rest of the crew.

  15. class factotum

    At one of my best jobs, my boss kept a small fridge in his office and stocked it with beer. On Friday afternoons after 5, the other two sales reps and I would hang out with him. They would drink beer, I would not because I don’t like the way it tastes. Give me Bailey’s cut with cream and I’m find – liquor-flavored fat. Yum. We didn’t get drunk and there was no pressure. Just a relaxed office with a boss who liked the people who worked for him.

    PS It is totally possible to get drunk on brandy if someone drinks 5 oz of it a night and supplements it with bourbon and wine. Not me. Just some people who stayed at my house for nine days and whose first tourist wish the morning after they arrived was to go to the liquor store. At least we didn’t have to pay for most of the booze they consumed.

  16. Anonymous

    Thanks for your feedback everyone. I start the job tomorrow as there were no other red flags that I saw during the interview process.

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