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I am the team lead of a team of ten. One of my team members in the past has undergone counseling due to alcohol abuse / excessive drinking. He has since recovered, but no longer drinks. Senior management of our department will be visiting town at the end of the month and has invited all team members in our department to dinner and drinks. The venue will be at an upscale bar and restaurant. Country is USA.

I noticed he has not made any mention that the event will be at a bar in which other team members will most likely drink. On one hand, I don't want to be presumptuous and assume he can never be in a bar environment with drinks present. On the other hand, a bar environment can be tempting, not conductive to my team member.

I don't know if my team member really has no problems in a bar environment with other team members drinking or may simply be afraid to rock the boat, afraid of being perceived as being difficult and wanting special accomodations.

I am well respected by my peers having worked at the company for almost 10 years.

  • Would asking for his comfort level be out of line?

  • If appropriate, how can I ask without appearing judgemental or moralizing?

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  • @JoeStrazzere , yes he does. Its to ensure he is comfortable and not to merely going along to avoid being perceived as uncooperative
    – Anthony
    Jun 13 at 23:36
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    You say "bar and restaurant" - my first thought was an Applebee's type place ("upscale" aside) that is primarily a restaurant but where they serve alcohol from a bar structure. I don't think of that as a "bar environment". I think this could impact the answer; "place with alcohol available" and "drinking party" may benefit different approaches. Jun 14 at 14:19
  • 4
    Hey will there be other opportunities for everyone to interact with department heads? A booze free reception in the office, during the day, might help team mates feel like they aren't missing out if they skip the bar. This could be a boon for a lot of people, not just your teammate.
    – LeLetter
    Jun 14 at 16:21
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    From (painful) personal experience, not all alcoholism is the same. My father was an alcoholic, but said himself that he never missed drinking. He went for years without a drink, could (and did) go to pubs with others who drank and he never touched a drop. When he did drink though it was often because of emotional events (such as a death of a friend), and 1 drink would turn in to 2 weeks of a bender for him. Even after this, he could go to a pub and just drink pop and wasn't tempted by any of it. Not all people are like this, so just bare this in mind with your colleague. Jun 15 at 14:15
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    Ask the team member first how he/she would like you to handle this. Jun 15 at 16:13

9 Answers 9

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I used to be on a team where one of the team members had a certain medical condition. One or two people knew about it but as a general rule, they made a point to keep it completely confidential. They wanted to be judged by the quality of their work like everyone else, not by doing "good work, for someone with condition X". A group outing was scheduled at one point, and the logistics and venue of the event conflicted horribly and unavoidably with that medical condition. The team member was left with a couple of options:

  1. Attend the event, and have everybody learn about their medical condition.
  2. Out themselves to their manager and ask if the event can be changed.
  3. Skip the event and have the rest of the team see you as that one weirdo that doesn't like to spend time with them.
  4. Try to make up some convincing-sounding lie to avoid the event, and miss out on everything that happens.

These are all bad options with consequences. The first option would result in the team member being subconsciously labeled as someone with this particular medical condition, forever changing everyone's perception of them and expectations for them plus opening the door for being illegally discriminated against in the future. The second is the same but potentially more limited in scope, provided the manager could be trusted to keep their confidence. The last two force the team member to miss out on whatever the group gets to do, and can make them look antisocial (or worse). It's a no-win situation for the person involved. In this case my team member chose the last option. The lie wasn't very convincing, and it impacted their social relationship with other team members for quite a while.

To answer your question yes, you should say something. Your employee has trusted you with this information, and you should do what you can to protect him from situations where his medical issues might cause him unwarranted harm in the workplace. He doesn't really have the ability to do anything about it on his own. His only way out is if he can be in that sort of environment without affecting his recovery. You don't know if that's the case and asking him about it would be invasive (you may not even get an honest answer). The consequences for him for a bad assumption on your part could be beyond devastating. I definitely would not sit back and hope it works out.

There's really no need to talk to the employee, talk to the event organizer. A tactful message to the event organizers could be something like this:

Can we strongly de-emphasize the role of alcohol in the upcoming event? Not everyone can/does drink alcohol for a wide variety of reasons, and I wouldn't want anyone to feel singled out, pressured, or unwelcome.

Don't mention names. Don't mention reasons. Don't even mention the number of people affected. Your message is "this is a problem that likely exists in a group this size, please keep it in mind and don't let it spoil anyone's experience". That way you're covering anyone with medical issues, religious issues, interns under the drinking age, even people who just choose not to drink and don't want to be hassled about it. Just don't include anything that might remotely point back to a specific person. Aside from the potential legal liability for sharing confidential medical information, you don't want rumors that so-and-so is pregnant, or can't go into a restaurant that serves alcohol because they're on parole. Honestly, this is a reasonable position to take even if you didn't already know that a team member might have a problem.

The only time I'd recommend talking to the employee about it is if the event organizers won't play along and if your company culture is such that there's a good chance that drinking will be a significant focus of the evening. Don't ask them to divulge any information, just warn them that this will be a drinking-focused event and let them know that you're here to support them in whatever way they need. I definitely recommend that you don't drink during the event, so that your team member doesn't stand out. If it's an optional event and he plans on skipping, strongly consider skipping as well. Be prepared to give them plausible cover if the event is mandatory and they say that attending would be a problem, like giving them a last-minute assignment to cover a (fictional) phone call with an overseas client/supplier in a drastically different time zone, or put them in the "on call" rotation that night in case your automated systems encounter a problem. Better for you to look like the mean guy that made someone miss the party than for them to be forced into a damaging or dangerous situation. I've even seen situations where the person who needed accommodation volunteered to help at the event in question; it was obvious that they weren't participating in the problematic activity like the rest of the group, but nobody thought twice about it. They're just participating in a different way.

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  • 4
    this answer is phenomenal because it is empathetic, based on real experience, and actionable whether you're the team lead or any other coworker. Jun 15 at 13:53
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    There's a fifth option to offer the team member, if the bar/restaurant is willing to help: With the team member's consent, inform the bar/restaurant that this team member should be served alcohol-free drinks if an alcoholic drink is requested. I'll note that some bars offer this as a standard service. This removes temptation (patron won't be served alcohol even if they ask) and avoids any risk of peer pressure (patron can pretend to order alcohol to fit in with coworkers).
    – Brian
    Jun 15 at 15:49
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    @Brian That only works if everyone is served individually. If the whole table orders at once, it might be difficult for the waiters to ensure the right person gets the non-alcoholic version without anyone noticing.
    – Llewellyn
    Jun 15 at 18:26
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    @Brian even if you could do that, putting recovering alcoholics in a situation where everyone else is drinking (even if they can't drink themselves) can be a significant contributing factor to a regression, something no one should be comfortable with.
    – asgallant
    Jun 15 at 21:06
  • Depending on the culture of the company/social environment being the guy who asks for de-emphasising alcohol at an event can in-and-of-itself be an action that comes with serious social repercussions. E.g. if your company regularly organises open-bar events, and words gets around that you are the guy who somehow made them stop this... it will not go down well.
    – fgysin
    Jun 29 at 10:00
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I am the team lead of a team of ten. One of my team members in the past has undergone counseling due to alcohol abuse / excessive drinking.

Let's reframe this a little: you have at least one team member with a history of alcohol abuse. With ten people in the team, it's quite likely (I'd estimate more likely than not) that the one you know about isn't the only one. Some may have other reasons for being uncomfortable at alcohol-heavy events e.g. family history, religious restrictions, pregnancy/medical, etc. etc.

You can still talk to that guy one-on-one. But this is something that's worth checking at a team level, and would be even if he wasn't in the picture. Perhaps something like this:

Hi team, as you know the bosses have invited us to dinner and drinks during their visit. I know not everybody drinks, so I wanted to check whether this venue is okay for all of us. If you have any concerns, please let me know via email/in our next one-on-one/[some other private option] and we can discuss.

Even if changing the venue isn't an option, there are ways to reduce the emphasis on alcohol, e.g.:

  • No free bar tab. Covering food and soft drinks but not booze helps reduce the pressure on people to drink alcohol and gives an easy excuse for non-drinkers.
  • No "shouts" (events where people are expected to buy rounds for one another).
  • Focus on non-alcoholic options for team bonding, e.g. icebreaker games rather than just getting hammered together.
  • Move on to a non-alcoholic event/location after the meal.

Even just discussing this issue with management and your team can be helpful. The discussion can be a reminder to drinkers to be respectful of non-drinkers' choices, and it shows the non-drinkers that their choices are recognised and supported.

Noting that this is a topic where workplace culture varies hugely from industry to industry, all the way from totally dry events to near-mandatory heavy drinking, so it's hard to give a universal answer, but that's how I'd approach it.

Personal experience: I'm not a teetotaller but I don't drink much and I really don't like being pressured to drink, something that has occasionally happened at work events.

Some years back, my then-team was voting on options for a social event. The winning option was a winery tour, but our boss noticed that several people had put this as their least preferred option. So before locking that choice in, he emailed us all to check whether anybody had problems with that venue, with the implication that if it was a deal-breaker we'd do something else. My script above is similar to what he sent us.

For me, the fact that he stopped to ask made a big difference to my comfort. It meant that I could go to the winery knowing that I wasn't going to be hassled about not drinking.

FWIW, Ask A Manager has a lot of discussion about alcohol at work events. I didn't find one that addresses your question directly, but that more general discussion might still be useful for ideas on how to negotiate this kind of thing, and on some potential problems to watch out for.

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    For yopur team email I would strongly emphasize that colleagues can talk to you about that in private. If Bob is a former alcoholic that needs to stay completely dry to stay safe, he probably doesn't want that to be public knowledge in the office. Might already be bad enough that you as his boss need to know about it.
    – quarague
    Jun 14 at 6:53
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    I really like the suggestion to cover things other than food. I've been to mixers where I had to bring my own water bottle, because no one planned for the possibility of not drinking. Put everyone on an equal footing- it makes a difference.
    – abought
    Jun 14 at 14:23
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    I wonder if asking the bar to promote a signature cocktail and a signature mocktail could reduce the pressure to drink. I'm often happier to drown several not-a-ritas if no one else can tell the difference.
    – LeLetter
    Jun 14 at 16:15
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    I would add that an important way to make it comfortable is to shut down people who try and pressure others into drinking "Are you sure? Just one?" should be met by "If he doesn't want to drink, he doesn't have to" or similar. Jun 14 at 16:51
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    I had a similar situation where my team was invited to dinner and drinks with the CEO and other upper mgmt. At one point, it was weekly (small company). Having appetizers for everyone was one way to reduce the pressure to drink, since everyone still had "something" in front of them. It also helped that there was a "time limit" of required presence, so I and others could avoid the later likelihood of being pressured to drink. And others speaking out against the pressure did help. I'm not a teetotaller, either, I just had better things to do with my time. Jun 14 at 20:35
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From a company perspective there really is no way to get it right. A restaurant will serve everybody, but you really cannot find one with no alcohol, no pork, no beef, no meat, no seafood, no gluten... you see where it ends, if you cater to every single incompatibility in a big company you will end up in a dark basemeant munching a gray pulp of recycled cardboard as the smallest common denominator. So a restaurant where everybody can order what they like and everybody has to take care of their own problems is the best they can realistically do.

Whether your colleague can or cannot come to this venue is their personal choice. Neither of us can say how comfortable they are with other people around drinking.

However, I'm pretty sure the one thing they don't want is to be in the spotlight about this issue. Neither as the person that didn't come because they were a recovering alcoholic, nor as the person that had to be treated special because they are a recovering alcoholic.

Personally, I don't drink. Not for any specific reason, I just don't like it. It tastes bad, it makes me feel sick, I have to wait for a taxi or shitty public transport home if I don't want to risk my license on a DUI and probably have a hangover the next day. Instead, I prefer to drink something tasty, go home in my own car on time and feel great about it. The average number of times I have to explain that simple truth per evening out is exhausting. People cannot take a "no thank you".

The one thing that makes it easier without spilling any secrets is allies.

Ask whoever prepares that event if the tables are fixed or if you can organize tables with specific wishes. You can have a table that simply has a "no alcohol" rule. That could be all kinds of people. Designated drivers, pregnant women, recovering alcoholics and yes, people like me. Nobody needs to wear a label why they don't want to drink. Nobody needs to explain again and again all evening. No drinks at your table. Period. No questions asked.

If it can be arranged in general, you may want to ask others if they have specific wishes as well. Maybe there will be a vegan table. Or a "no pork" table. Or a "no peanuts" table. People with allergies will have no problem coming forward, because there is no stigma attached to someone allergic to seafood for example. They won't mind being known for that company wide, it's just a fact, like shoe size. Nobody will judge you on it.

So if that is possible, multiple tables with different rules and with no reason needed why you want to be part of that table, that would be great. Just make sure you don't offload the burden of organizing that to the original organizer. If you want it to be a success and want support from the organizer, don't start by telling them they need to work more and harder. That's not going to go over well. Offer your help in doing it.

And obviously don't have the recovering alcoholic lead that effort. Pick someone who is robust enough to say "none of your business" without the fear of any dark secret coming out company wide when anybody asks why they want that.

However, again, whether that specific person is comfortable coming, even with allies, is their choice. They might not be. And that's okay, too.

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    The "dark basement" is dark because of vampires on your team? Or skin-cancer survivors? Or eye problems / migraines where bright sunlight glinting can trigger a reactoin? And it's a basement because of fear of heights, or because someone took "lowest common denominator" literally? And the cardboard is because some people are on diets, so we can't eat food with calories. :P Jun 14 at 6:58
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    Having to explain/decline something again and again all evening, or having people be unable to accept just a "no thanks", seems like a culture / event organisation problem. If I were in management at such an event, I'd try to make sure that doesn't happen. The idea of having specific tables for non-drinkers, vegans, etc. does "other" people who'd be at those tables, and kind of falls apart the moment someone would want to be at 2 tables, e.g. they're both a non-drinker and a vegan.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 14 at 12:51
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    As someone who doesn't eat trees, I am offended by your recycled cardboard dish and demand that it be taken off the menu immediately!!!! (and as someone who has worked in the pulp and paper industry I would not be eating that stuff !)
    – Peter M
    Jun 14 at 13:33
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    @NotThatGuy It's not that you have to explain it to the same annoying guy over and over, but an event has so many people, if you have to explain you don't drink to every third or fourth, you are busy all evening.
    – nvoigt
    Jun 14 at 13:37
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    Just a comment: Unlike seafood and all that other stuff you mentioned, alcohol is pretty much universally harmful; sometimes it poses an immediate danger. So perhaps the real answer is: Move the venue to one that does not serve alcohol; if pressed for a reason, state that this move is for the health of the team.
    – moonman239
    Jun 15 at 22:28
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If I were you, I would probably not ask him for his comfort level of drinking as I don't know if he would feel comfortable or uneasy with that question.

However, I would suggest that maybe, you would be sitting near him, and be ready to support and defend his decision not to drink in the scenario where he tells people that he would not drink, and still some people force him to drink or ridicule his decision not to drink.

You are the team lead, and your words carry a lot of weight to other team members even in a bar or social environment.

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    A good point about supporting him. The hot question recently about how to respond to teammates calling another pussy who wont drink is a good reminder...
    – Anthony
    Jun 13 at 22:49
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    @Anthony: And if you go down that route, you may also not want to drink yourself. It's a silent way of showing support, and people may be less likely to call out your report if you're doing the same next to them. Jun 14 at 9:38
  • If the person already knows that you know, it might even be helpful to mention privately ahead of time to him that you'll be there to support him in his recovery. Carpooling and arranging some signal about needing to leave early may also help depending on how they are doing in that recovery as well. Jun 14 at 11:20
  • Many people with a history of alcohol addiction would be very uncomfortable going to a bar, especially when it seems like they're being forced to go (given that it's a team event), and it seems like they may be pressured to drink (he presumably wouldn't know that you'd stop that, but if people are insistent, that can lead to an uncomfortable situation in any case). If the person already knows you know, asking (in private) whether he'd be comfortable going to a bar seems infinitely better than not asking in case he's uncomfortable with the question. Or ask the whole team, as per another answer.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 14 at 12:14
  • Regarding whether to ask, ideally you should use different methods to gauge how people feel. You could mention in private something like "How do you feel about going to a bar?" without making it too specific, as well as allow more general feedback such as surveys or private emails. Asking people's opinion is difficult because there are always people who'll feel "I don't want to spoil everybody else's fun" and say they're fine with it then just not go. But a manager needs people to be honest with him/her, so a lot of it is about establishing a trust relationship.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 15 at 13:28
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I was a raging alcoholic and drug addict, but have now been sober for 10 years. I also now work in a company with a strong drinking culture. We have monthly events during work hours where alcohol is served, an open bar for employees, and all our outside company events involve alcohol. Several of my coworkers, including the CEO know about my past, because I'm fairly open about the fact that I'm in recovery. It's not a sore subject for me, and in fact I view it as a personal achievement that I've been able to overcome a hardship like that.

If they've been through counseling or treatment, they likely have some kind of support or have thought about and planned for how to handle being at an event with alcohol. I personally would make sure I had my own ride home so I could leave if I wanted, had a close friend that understands addiction to call if I felt uncomfortable, and would keep a non-alcoholic drink in my hand to fend off any do-gooders trying to make sure everyone is having a good time.

If there's something you'd really like to do, ensure that there are non-alcoholic beverage options there ahead of time (there usually are).

Your employee doesn't need coddling or sheltering from the world, and may feel infantilized if they sense that's how they're being treated. Our society is filled with alcohol. They encounter it every time they step foot in a grocery store or restaurant, and a big part of recovery is learning how to deal with this. Good for you for being a supportive boss. What you can most do to help is probably just talk to them and treat them like a normal person at the event.

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  • That said - company events shouldn't be a funnel directly to alcohol. There should be plenty of other options (and not just soda, but activities too) for people to go.
    – dwjohnston
    Jun 16 at 6:38
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As you are not the organizer of the event, and the organizer of the event is your superior, you have very little say into how/where this event is organized. What I would not do in this situation is make a fuss over someone who can't/won't/is uncomfortable drinking (not to belittle your subordinate's situation, but it isn't your place to crusade on behalf of them to senior management).

Here's what you can do:

  1. Ask your subordinate if they have a problem attending an event at a bar, in private. If they have a problem, you can make mention of that to the event organizers, and maybe they will deign to consider your recommendation. But also maybe they won't, and you'll have to live with that. It doesn't need to be a team poll or public address, simply saying to the organizer of the event "one person has this issue" is enough to at least get them thinking about it, and that's all you need.

  2. Emphasize to the team that this is an out-of-work social event, and attendance is optional. Some people may want to attend or not attend for various reasons, it's OK to not attend this event for any reason. This opens the door not only to this one person, but also someone who, for example, wants to spend the night with their family, or has some other engagement, or is simply antisocial.

I think that's about all you can/should do in this situation. Otherwise, the people attending are adults, and they should be able to behave like adults. As adults, they should know what choices are right for them, and to take action as appropriate and respect each other to also make decisions that are appropriate. Deal with any other situation as it comes up, but for the moment assume your staff are all adults and act appropriately.

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    I really don't think this is a good way to deal with it. I drink. And I'm happy with that. Bosses invite me to a booze-up, I'll be there. And still, I think it's the team lead's responsibility to make sure that their team is inclusive, and find ways to NOT make this a drinking event. And if the bosses say their choice is final, then say you can't attend either.
    – Auspex
    Jun 14 at 21:07
  • @Auspex Would you say the same if this were a Muslim or Jewish subordinate and the issue of the day was eating pork, rather than drinking alcohol? You wouldn't go to a restaurant that serves pork because your subordinate can't eat pork? Or a restaurant that serves meat at all if your subordinate is vegan? Or a restaurant that serves bread if your subordinate has Celiac Disease? As nvoight said in their answer, this gets to be a very slippery slope very fast to the point where you become the troublemaker and drama-causer.
    – Ertai87
    Jun 14 at 21:16
  • Also keep in mind this is senior management making this party, it's not OP's team's party. If OP doesn't want to go, senior management will say "ok, that's your choice, the other 15 teams and 100 people who will be attending will have a glorious time without you, have fun watching Netflix at home alone lol". You're not going to get the response you want by making a fuss.
    – Ertai87
    Jun 14 at 21:19
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    Absolutely! I am 100% carnivore, and I've done the vegan choice for colleagues. Where's the slippery slope? Yes, these things get difficult if you try to cater to everyone, but nobody said it has to be easy.
    – Auspex
    Jun 14 at 21:21
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    Also, if you have a diverse team (which I hope you do), I hope you have a Jew, a vegan, a non-alcoholic, someone with celiac disease (or is otherwise anti-gluten), someone on the Autism spectrum who can't handle noise, someone who is not comfortable in quiet spaces, and someone practicing the Keto diet on your team. Do you simply refuse to attend any work event because these people all have conflicting restrictions and you can't "protect" everyone? That's where the slippery slope is.
    – Ertai87
    Jun 14 at 21:28
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Many experts stress that addiction is not an illness, but a personality trait. You can't heal addiction, you can only teach someone who is addicted to cope with the temptation.

There are no ex-alcoholics. There are only non-practicing alcoholics.

You should make no pressure to your colleague to come to an event that's about drinking. It won't be good for him. There's a big risk the addiction will take over.

The best way would be to split meeting to semi-official dinner part with no or moderate amount of alcohol (glass of wine or beer), greetings, speeches, sharing experience, smalltalk etc. and put possibly heavy drinking part as optional, afterwards. It would give an opportunity for everyone who want to come, but is not very keen on heavy drinking, to take part, and skip the optional drinking part, in the same time, give people having no issues with alcohol to have fun and socialize more intensively.

I understand it might be not an option to change the plan, but it would be more accommodating to everyone.

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    You misspelled 'addiction' twice in the first paragraph, but it's too small a change for me to edit.
    – Erik
    Jun 15 at 10:42
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Another possible solution would be: do not drink yourself. Make it normal that not everyone drinks alcohol at these events. Don't make a fuss about it, just don't drink.

Even if you normally drink at social events. It is after all still work and you are still responsible for your team.

-5

You shouldn't get involved. Just go and have a good time, back your colleague as you would anyone else if they're getting hassled, but don't babysit adults.

As an adult your colleague should know his limits and have strategies to cope with any situations that arise.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jun 15 at 19:56

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