Free beer? Why mine isn't a pint

Having decided that I run a risk of being type-cast after my Kent-Teach colleagues suggested I become their “Mental Health Correspondent”, I thought I’d lower the tone for this blog and write about beer instead. More specifically I’ve been inspired by “Beer Fridays”.  

The Independent recently ran an article about the 13 UK companies offering their employees free beer. The offer varies from a seemingly limitless supply to beer-fridge access on a Friday afternoon, a few hours before many workers may be heading to the pub anyway. 

Work nights out are not new. Richer Sounds used to practically insist their staff went out together for monthly staff bonding nights in a local hostelry – with a company budget to fund it. Connecting with colleagues on a social level can help to improve or encourage team spirit, build trust and break down the “them and us” attitude in organisational hierarchies. 

It sounds naff, but there is an employee engagement cliché that people don’t leave organisations, people leave people. It’s a cliché for a reason. Richer Sounds motivation to stump up the cash for nights out was not altruistic, but part of a whole host of employee engagement activities designed to maintain high levels of staff morale. 

High morale and commitment to the organisation is actually good for profits. There is a research basis for this – its technical term is “discretionary effort” where employees give a little more of themselves than perhaps they are strictly paid for. The same principles apply to other professions too where qualitative outcomes may be a more appropriate measure of success.

Over the years I have been subjected to the odd “working dinner” and in my time at M&S the staff Christmas Dinner Dance was obligatory for the management team (along with a management “cabaret” to entertain the troops and humiliate anyone with an office). This enforced attendance led to a few awkward moments on the following Monday when I would be refereeing the HR issues that had arisen on Saturday evening. 

If you’ve seen the festive parody of “Patty Lewis”, an HR Director trying to organise a Christmas Party, you may want to know that actually it’s not always a laughing matter. I think my favourite war story came after performing in a Spice Girls rip off; I was “Baby”, wearing plaits made of yellow wool and feeling very glad that I wasn’t the Store Manager who was dressed as one of the Village People performing YMCA.  

Having changed back into my posh-frock and heels,  I walked into the lobby of the hotel venue to find a member of staff bleeding, an ambulance on its way and the husband of another member of staff being restrained by an off duty police officer. The months unpicking the HR issues from that were, therefore, a learning curve. 

With these experiences in mind, forgive my misgivings about free beer.  Most of the companies on the list seem to be tech/digital service companies who combine the free beer with a POETS day (Push Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday). This reassures me a little because it limits the potential detriment of the outputs of working under the influence. 

I’m not entirely sure if I could responsibly wield my employment law knowledge a few beers down – or maybe I wouldn’t entirely care whether a policy is being followed or not. Besides, and this is my next issue, I don’t actually like beer. 

There, I’ve said it. From an Equal Opportunities point of view, should companies then offer me Prosecco or a glass of cold pinot instead? We have enough trouble co-ordinating doughnuts on a Friday. I now know my colleagues by their doughnut preferences (or those who don’t like them at all and would rather have cookies or fruit). 

If you’re trying to butter-up your consultant, let me know and I will spill all on the relevant doughnut to offer; although in times of austerity we pop to our local supermarket for bags of custard, jam or ring doughnuts; Krispy Cremes are not on our menu. 

My next concern is about the rest of the message free beer sends to staff. I attended a seminar recently that included a presentation from a representative from Turning Point, the substance misuse enterprise. He presented details of a drug harm scoring system from the Lancet.  That matrix showed that based on combined harm to others and harm to the self, alcohol does more harm than heroin. 

I doubt the organisations offering free beer are also providing lines of cocaine (fifth on the list) or cannabis (eighth on the list). Apparently, the drug with the lowest harm rating is mushrooms, and I am certain that special soup is  not on the canteen menu at Friday lunchtimes. Of course I must note that these examples are illegal where alcohol is not, but tobacco is also lower on the list and I’m not seeing companies offering free ciggies either.

For those still on the fence, Beer Fridays can also only be context specific. They are certainly not a “one size fits all” approach. Hip and trendy digital companies are one thing, but there are plenty of careers in which it won’t work, and plenty of cultural contexts that are not conducive to this type of inducement. There are religious reasons for people not to drink alcohol so free beer can’t be the only engagement activity. 

Any sort of food or drink related rewards hold challenges as my Friday doughnut dilemmas illustrate.  That’s before we get to anyone who has an allergy, intolerance or feels their little-black-dress diet is being sabotaged. 

So, for now, I’m hoping the idea doesn’t take off, but I can’t help wondering what would happen if you put a chemistry teacher in front of a class after a free beer Friday lunchtimes. The results of that could be literally explosive. 

Does your school do something to bring staff together? Share below! 

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