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Tala Abu Hayyaneh, photographed outside a pub in Calgary, says that the social pressure to take part in after-work drinks can result in uncomfortable situations.Leah Hennel

The local bar has long been the default setting for casual networking in many Canadian workplaces.

The act of gathering at a bar or restaurant to consume alcohol is often seen as a way for employees and their bosses to bond, chat and get to know one another outside the pressures of the job.

But for women and other marginalized groups, this common social practice is not always inclusive.

For Tala Abu Hayyaneh, a Calgary-based millennial working in the public sector, the presumed participation in drinking culture has resulted in uncomfortable situations. As a Muslim woman, Ms. Abu Hayyaneh recalls the social pressure to conform that occurred during her first employee work retreat post-pandemic lockdowns.

“This was the only socializing opportunity to network, [and it] was happening late in the evening at a brewery I’d never heard of before,” says Ms. Abu Hayyaneh. Hesitant to travel far in the city for the event but not wanting to miss an opportunity for professional engagement, she reluctantly attended.

“At first, I started self-blaming, thinking I was putting obstacles in my way to connect. But everyone was drinking and talking about things I couldn’t necessarily relate to,” she says.

“Even in the sense where I wanted to socialize, it was very hard to because the event was at a place that was very unfamiliar and uncomfortable.”

Employees may not drink alcohol for religious or cultural reasons. They may have a substance abuse issue. They may have a disability that prevents them from accessing a venue. Or, they may simply not feel safe or comfortable drinking with work colleagues. Whatever the reason, the consequences of opting out may go beyond missing a social occasion – it may create barriers to professional growth and advancement.

Shifting after-work drinks culture to a more inclusive networking culture facilitates openness and safety, aspects that are fundamental to helping marginalized groups thrive.

Rethinking team building

To change the after-work drinks norm and the toxic “bro culture” that often underlies it, organizations should offer a variety of non-alcoholic activities that cater to a multitude of interests. TLNT, a global publication that covers talent management and HR, suggests activities such as potlucks, bowling, outdoor sports or games, comedy shows or even escape rooms are great ways to build company morale.

Huiming Chen, a UK-based senior finance director at a health company, says that in her opinion, after-work drinks culture prevents people from building meaningful workplace connections. She would prefer to participate in career networking events that cater to different personality types.

”After-work drinking is in a group setting, but … people that are introverted like me may not feel comfortable in those settings,” says Ms. Chen. “I am better at one-on-one relationship building.”

Karly Mortimer, who is the director of artist and program development at National accessArts Centre in Calgary, is interested in social activities that redefine what it means to invite people into a space. In her role, Ms. Mortimer supports a community of 350 multidisciplinary artists who have developmental and physical disabilities.

“Traditionally in the arts, networking is going for a drink, constantly being at the right parties or wearing the right clothes and that’s how you get noticed,” she says. “What we’ve found is that with the disability community there’s a culture of activism, connection and reaching out that is quite vibrant through connecting online.”

Throughout the pandemic, Ms. Mortimer saw an influx of opportunities with organizations interested in accessible events that included tools such as ASL interpreters and chat log transcripts.

”When we talk about disability and access practices, people get fixated on physical acts like ramps,” she says. “It’s not just about how that one person might show up who has access needs, but [accessible events] really benefit everybody in the room, everybody that you’re inviting.”

How leaders can set the tone

Leaders play a key role in shifting a culture of alcohol to one that is more inclusive. Chloe Tse, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian working in media and technology in Toronto, says that over the course of her career, she has faced challenges in navigating the promotions that were key to unlocking professional success.

“I code-switch all the time. As a queer woman of colour, it’s a survival skill you have to adapt sometimes just to survive and feel safe,” says Ms. Tse.

Now, as a senior manager role in the tech space, Ms. Tse is dedicated to dismantling the kind of unequal systems upheld by after-work drinks culture. Changing mindsets can lead to structural change, she says.

“All it takes is one person to shift culture and I think people discount their individual power in that way.”

While it may be challenging to reject after-work drinking norms and stand out from the crowd, Ms. Chen notes that it’s something she has learned to embrace.

“I realized that if you stay true to yourself and if you don’t drink, people will still come to you,” she says. “Instead [of drinking], you can spend time talking about cultures, values and other things, and you may get more out of a social event and have better discussions without alcohol.”

The Globe and Mail

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