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A reader asks: My co-workers always go for drinks after work. I'm not much of a drinker. Am I missing out on networking opportunities if I don't join?

If people are networking and you aren't there, yes, you are missing out. This can include office parties, industry events and yes, even after-hour drinks with your co-workers.

As long as there's been a five- day work week and patios within walking distance, there's been an after-office happy hour. According to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, around 85 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 have had a drink in the past 12 months. Forty-two per cent of them drink at least once a week. While those numbers aren't divided into occasion, I'd wager a few of those drinks are with co-workers.

You mention you don't drink very often. I can relate. It only takes three or four drinks for me to find myself waking up on my couch surrounded by French fries. Blame it on being a small Indian woman, being well out of university life or just the years starting to catch up with me. Either way, I'm a cheap drunk. It does wonders for my bill at the end of the night, but not so much for keeping up with the rest of the table.

The beginning of your career is a crucial time, and you don't want to be left out. After-work drinks can definitely be a networking opportunity, but are also a great opportunity to bond with your co-workers. It gives you a chance to get to know each other in a more relaxed environment and that can be pivotal to building professional relationships as you grow.

Here's how I handle after-work socials:

– I know my limit and order within it. I like vodka sodas (tonic water is disgusting) and I make sure to ask for a tall glass when I order. It's also easy to mix in extra water or soda with this drink and not bring attention to yourself.
– I eat something before I go out or order a bite to eat so I'm not drinking on an empty stomach.
– If I'm not drinking, I'm honest about it. Pro tip: Order a plate of nachos for the table. Are you the party pooper with Sprite? Or have you been transformed to the bringer of a mountain of cheesy goodness? Note: This only works if you share.

This is what works for me, but I understand that some people don't drink at all, for a variety of reasons from religion, to health, to personal choice.

My advice remains the same. Go. No one is going to force shots on you. Remember, this is socializing with colleagues, not spring break. Colleagues are interested in building relationships with you, not alcohol.

"I haven't had a drink in 26 years. I have a tremendous network and I did it without alcohol," says Jane Taber, vice-president of National PR and a veteran political journalist for The Globe and Mail.

Jane makes it a point to be upfront when people offer her a drink and it hasn't stopped her from making contacts and growing her network. In fact, Jane says it was actually a benefit to not drink as a journalist (you pick up more stuff) and in other fields, too (you don't overdo it and wind up saying something stupid). And of course, it's cheaper. Seems like a win-win for the cash-strapped looking to get a leg up in a competitive workforce.

But Jane does acknowledge it's unfortunate that most networking events are set around a bar. "There's other things that you can do to network. You can have a coffee, or go for breakfast."

Two great options. Or pitch a fun activity for everyone to do together. Forming a softball team, going bowling, trying out your city's latest craze are all options.
These might require a bit more organization on your side, but you'll be demonstrating that you care about your team and aren't just blowing people off.

The way I see it, people starting out their careers are always one conversation away from a big leap forward. If you're not there, that conversation never happens.

Help Desk is an advice column for young professionals from The Globe and Mail. If you have a question you'd like Kiran Rana to dig into, send an e-mail to