update: is it okay to drink before a presentation?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who asked if it’s okay to drink before a presentation? Here’s the update.

I could have sent an update earlier but it took time to sort my thoughts. Feeling the need to drink alcohol was a symptom of a lot of other issues that I didn’t process until I moved to a different company and realized how bad the culture was at the job I wrote about. I’ll start with the things that aren’t anxiety related.

1) The org I was in had the expectation that every employee present periodically (in a rotation). This made sense for the many academics that worked in our org, but didn’t really make sense for our IT staff like myself. The presentations were stressful because my manager didn’t see presentation preparation as work–it was an obligation on our team and nothing more. Talking about preparing for the presentation in a team meeting would be as weird as talking about preparing to fill out my timesheet.

2) There were a lot of antagonistic cultural splits between different groups in the company, and between our org and higher levels of management (other than my line manager). My team had a substantial “rebellion” culture that in retrospect was fairly petty. We entered the office through a section that was actively being renovated and closed off with tarp, we made fun of any email from other organizations or upper management, we replaced our uncomfortable desk chairs with chairs from a meeting room.

My boss kept alcohol in his drawer to add to his soda on occasion, I think purely to be subversive. We were committed to our company’s mission, but were convinced that upper management was out-of-touch and that our way was better. I think that cultural conditioning affected my decision–“See? If I break the rules my presentation will be way better than normal!” If my buzzed presentation was really any better (like you said, I can’t assess that accurately), it was likely because I had something to prove.

I do think presentation anxiety was a factor, and your response as well as the comments were helpful for helping me to reflect. I don’t think public speaking anxiety was a specific issue, but there was a lot of anxiety over optics and how I would come across to people.

In any case, I’m now in a different company with a better culture, and I’ve gotten rid of most of the damage to my “normal meter.” I’ve been anxious about the presentations I’ve had to give here, but it’s a much more normal anxiety and I’ve had plenty of time to prepare and get feedback beforehand, which has helped a lot.

Thank you and all of the wonderful commenters!

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Julia*

    I sometimes learn almost as much from the updates as I do from Alison’s advice, as stellar as that advice is. It’s just educational to watch how people end up resolving their problems and growing as people.

  2. Cj*

    I’m so glad to hear you got out of there. I started drinking because of work stress (hated my boss) at the end of the day. It quickly escalated until I got a DUI, which got me fired. And I instantly quit drinking. Best thing that ever happened to me. I know make $10,000 a year more, plus have employer paid health insurance, and most importantly, love my job and co-workers.

  3. imaginaryoranges*

    I’m glad you got out but OMG there’s a department that stole all the conference room chairs and replaced them with awful ones in my organization and everyone else HATES THEM. They deny all culpability even though you can SEE the conference room chairs in their offices. But none of us are over them in report lines to make them give the chairs back; we’ve told the facilities people and they repeatedly say they’ll get the chairs back, but then they don’t.

    1. appleseed*

      how many chairs? I’d probably recruit someone to help me move the chairs back early in the am or late in the evening or I’d just steal one from them for myslf LOL

      1. imaginaryoranges*

        There are supposed to be 12 chairs in the conference room; they’ve taken 6 of them and replaced them plus ADDITIONAL crappy chairs. Unfortunately all of the different department doors are locked when the staff isn’t there, or we would have taken them back for the shared space!

    2. Peanut Butter Vibes*

      As much as this sucks, it seems the real bummer here is that your company isn’t providing half decent chairs for people to use at their desks. I’m sorry that you’re using a crappy chair at your desk AND in the conference room.

      1. imaginaryoranges*

        Different departments have different budget lines. Our desk chairs are fine; it appears that when various offices moved to a new building, this other department must have blown their budget on buying couches for their lobby area and such instead of decent chairs, since all of their other furniture is new and shiny, and yet they’re poaching chairs from the shared space. Our offices moved into the space at the same time, so we saw what was coming in new and not (our chairs came with us from our old space).

        1. wittyrepartee*

          I mean, that might be more on the managers in that department though. It’s pretty awful that the rank and file are sitting on garbo chairs.

        2. Boof*

          So… they basically stole the chairs from the group that actually paid for them? Surprised the department that actually paid for them isn’t reporting this

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yikes…but it leaves me to wonder why they resorted to petty levels like this? Why were they left to suffer the shitty chairs that are now in the conference room on display for all the other departments to deal with? It sounds like they got fed up with not getting new chairs and went rogue to me.

      They still suck because punishing the rest of the staff wasn’t the way to do it! But at the same time, they were again, it sounds like they weren’t given comfortable chairs in their department and they did what some folks would suggest you do around here and found a fix themselves.

      their idea is probably that if the right people had to “suffer”those chairs, they’d finally get some new ones instead of keeping them in the building and expecting people to use them!

      1. Forrest*

        yes, and conference chairs generally wouldn’t make good office desk chair! Conference room chairs aren’t designed for sitting at a keyboard and a decent company wouldn’t actually allow that to go on because it would make it impossible for people to set up their workstations in ways which will minimise musculoskeletal pains. If the conference chairs are really more comfortable than whatever they replaced, there is something *very* dysfunctional going on.

        1. Nesprin*

          Speaking from a (we shouldn’t buy things because responsibility to our stakeholders) type institution, there’s a budget for making the conference room look nice and a budget for ergonomics, and these are the only ways to get new chairs.

        2. OP*

          OP here, the conference chairs were also uncomfortable but the old desk chairs were ancient and I ended every day with pretty moderate back pain.

          The conference chairs were desk chairs, just nicer. There was a whole lot of budget shenanigans that I didn’t understand. Or maybe that was just the excuse–whenever we’d ask for things it was always “Oh, well it’s got to come out of the budget, I don’t know what that looks like right now”

  4. Sara without an H*

    OP, I’m glad to hear that you’re in a better situation now. Btw, thank you for the expression “normal meter.” May I steal it? I can think of several situations where it would be useful.

  5. Jenny*

    It’s definitely a sign of bad things. I’ve also seen an attorney in a HUGE amount of trouble because he drank before closing argument and the jury could smell it on him (I was an intern at the time, the prosecutors ended up vacating all recent convictions in cases where he was defense counsel because it was clear ineffective assistance).

    Glad OP got out of that situation. It tends to end badly.

  6. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    I’ve done, perhaps 40 presentations at conferences. Never did I take a drink before presenting or doing a sales pitch.

    But I did have a couple disrupted by drunks in the audience. One was hauled out, the other, we made an ass out of the guy.

    I will tell you this – while I enjoy a drink, I’ve worked with lots of drunks. And I never enjoyed drinking with them.

  7. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’m so glad the OP is in a better workplace culture. Though I had to laugh at the “petty” example of swapping uncomfortable desk chairs with meeting room chairs. Can’t say I blame them too much for that one.

  8. HarvestKaleSlaw*

    I was wondering how you were doing. I am so glad to hear that you are in a healthier culture now. I did a little mini fist pump and cheer when I read your update. Hooray for you! Really truly.

  9. Katrinka*

    I suspect that your manager keeping alcohol in his drawer was less about being subversive and more about having a drinking problem.

  10. Amy*

    Re: “Calm Down”

    I’ve experienced a similar issue and the way I handled it was to basically say, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been starting emails with ‘calm down’ and I wanted to ask if everything was OK. I’ve observed that sometimes people say things like that when they are personally stressed about something. Is there anything I can do to help?” Sometimes this genuinely is the case! Sometimes not, but the other person feel embarrassed and stops. I don’t know if it’s as good as Alison’s way, but it worked for me.

  11. Slow Gin Lizz*

    I know it’s a symptom of the toxic workplace but I’m pretty appalled at an org that requires presentations but then doesn’t allow you spend adequate time preparing for them. That’s setting everyone up for failure and causing a lot of undue stress. Pretty awful, IMO.

  12. Richard Hershberger*

    I am trying to wrap my mind around requiring every employee to present periodically. Was it literally every employee? Did the receptionist present on current trends in phone-answering? And what about having to sit through these things? The presenter is required to present, regardless of having anything remotely relevant or interesting to say, much less relevant or interesting to me. Add on top that you aren’t allowed to prepare on company time, and I would be sorely tempted to creative incompetence: Pick the most abstruse element of your job and mumble about it for ten minutes: Any questions?

    1. OP*

      Ahh, it was every employee in our division so, knowledge workers. But yeah, there were quite a few presentations for people with repetitive jobs that were basically “here’s what I did over the past few months, pretty much this stuff every day, that’s it”.

      There was a caste system of PHDs vs non-PHDs, the unkind part of me wonders if it was designed to be humiliating for non-PHDs. The PHDs had time to prepare in general (and more stable hours) because preparing was part of their job.

      I certainly have nothing against PHDs, and I liked all of the front line PHDs, it was just a management thing.

  13. WonkyTonk*

    We were committed to our company’s mission, but were convinced that upper management was out-of-touch and that our way was better.

    This sounds so familiar. In fairness, I think the frontline staff at my old job was right about our upper management, but it created a toxic environment that made working there unbelievably stressful. Glad you got out, LW!

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