Silicon Valley Gets Soused

By Dirk Hanson 04/25/11

 

A growing number of high-tech firms from Twitter to Yelp are “keeping bars stocked at all hours, installing kegerators and letting programmers tip back a few while they code.”

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At Yelp, 24-hour access to on-the-job brew.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

“Crew cut lads fresh from college would put aside their childish experimentations with wine and beer, join a respectable company, and start the business of learning how to belt hard liquor from the seasoned souses at work… Why lounge around in a bar, spending money, when you could get cockeyed on the clock while dollars rolled into your pocket?”

Those were the days, my friend, as conjured by Frank Kelly Rich at Modern Drunkard Magazine—recalling the days when the Don Drapers of the business world plied their trade over an endless stream of martinis and unfiltered cigarettes. The idea that there was a time when smokers and drinkers freely reigned at the office is almost impossible to imagine now (see our story “All Smoked Out”). These days, as we're constantly reminded, drinking or smoking on the job can be as damaging to your career as it is to your health. As Jackson Dawson warns at the Drinking Made Easy website: “Regardless of your ability to handle copious amounts of liquor, or your ability to actually moderate yourself, it simply sends a bad message.”

The one exception to the temperance trend seems to be Silicon Valley, where a growing number of high-profile firms, from Twitter to Yelp to CrowdFlower, have actually been endorsing the return of liquor to the workplace. Bloomberg News reports that many of San Francisco's best-known high-tech companies are “keeping bars stocked at all hours, installing kegerators and letting programmers tip back a few while they code.” At Yelp's San Francisco headquarters, the company even provides thirsty employees with a never-empty beer keg—although workers must key in to the keg with their company badge, allowing the company to track who drinks how much. ("No one wants to be at the top of that list," a Yelp employeee admits.)

Not surprisingly, the Valley's new policy of tolerance raises questions. High tech companies claim that the 24/7 nature of their businesses demands a different workplace environment--after all, we're all responsible adults here, right? But not everyone agrees. "I've been involved in workplaces that can be pretty dysfunctional, when people start drinking a little too much at lunch," says Robert Sutton, a well-known business professor at Stanford University. There's like a bazillion studies that show that when people drink their performance is impaired and there's problems with absenteeism." And there are tons of studies linking alcohol use in the workplace with sexual harassment of women as well. A Cornell University study, sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), showed that harassment of female colleagues doubled for each additional drink consumed by male co-workers.

Silicon Valley execs insist that they aren't trying to bring back the bad old days of Mad Men, but are simply acknowledging the fact that that for many of their employees, staying at the office until midnight to finish a report is the rule rather than the exception. Who wouldn't need a drink after spending 48 straight hours working on a piece of code? 

Yes, it's true that today's high-tech offices can be highly stressful. And alcohol may help some employees handle that stress. But the other effects of this new policy remain largely unexamined. Yelp's workers may turn out to be the chillest employees in the world. On the other hand, reintroducing alcohol into the workplace may turn out to be much like lighting a match in a gasoline factory.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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