‘Overserved’? Certainly, and workplace sobriety underrated

By this point in the news cycle, even the most blasé sports fan in the Upper Midwest knows that Norwood Teague has problems — legal, psychological and, likely, alcohol-abuse problems.

The former athletics director at the University of Minnesota was said to have been drunk at a president’s retreat in mid-July when he sexually harassed two senior-level women. He resigned August 7.

Amid the media firestorm that has ensued — with more women coming forward to say Teague harassed them and the U of M president backing away from his original claim that his golden boy had merely been “overserved” — one question has yet to be asked.

Was it appropriate, or advisable, for alcohol to be served at this work-related function at all?

Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, a recovering alcoholic, was the first to say that Teague’s alcohol consumption at the retreat was “no excuse” for his boorish and illegal behavior. True enough. But can the U of M be held accountable? Who was minding the bar at the taxpayer-supported leadership retreat? How was Teague allowed to get this drunk?

Attorney, women’s advocate and human resources consultant Gina Franklin counsels employers to “turn around” the assumption that alcohol is a bonding agent and a necessary source of creative inspiration at work.Gina_Franklin

“That’s the ‘Mad Men’ philosophy of life,” says Franklin, a senior associate at W.J. Flynn and Associates in Eagan, Minnesota. “We think it’s seriously dated.”

Franklin, like me, is an old-school feminist who would never blame women for harassment or assault. But we share the perhaps prudish and politically incorrect opinion that sobriety in professional settings is a protective tool.

As an HR coach, what would you say to Norwood Teague?

Now that he’s resigned, he needs to think about: “How do I address this so I can be employed again?” If I were his coach, I would say: “Go get an alcohol assessment and really learn if there is abuse or addiction. Put together a plan for how you’re going to better understand this. Have this be part of a life-changing event.” I think an employer would give some credit to the proactive nature of that.

Employers that cater to younger workers, especially, promote alcohol at workplace functions or after long days at the office as a well-deserved stress reliever.

If our clients have an occasion to provide alcohol at an event, we work with them not just around policy but the whole culture of consumption:

  • You can serve alcohol in limited amounts, such as two drink tickets per person.
  • Remind everybody of the organization’s harassment policies and code of conduct.
  • Provide food at the event. Stop any access to alcohol after dinner. Instead have a speaker or entertainment — and then provide cab rides home.Drinking at work

What role does alcohol play in sexual harassment?

Alcohol is a factor in the majority of these crimes. It goes almost hand in hand. Alcohol removes inhibitions, and it compromises judgment.

While I was in law school in the early 1980s, I had a public debate with my law professor: Is alcohol a mitigating factor when sentencing a sex crime? My response was: “No, it’s not a mitigating factor. The individual made a choice to consume to excess and his judgment was impaired.” I was unequivocal about it. If you use alcohol as a mitigation in sex crimes, then you’re always going to mitigate. Always.

Your daughters are 18 and 21. How do you caution these young women about mixing alcohol and work, without missing out on the networking and relationship-building that often happens at work-related events?

I have to think about that as a woman every day in my world, and both my daughters and my stepdaughters, who range from 28 to 38, ask me how I do it. I talk about compromise. If consumption of alcohol would compromise your thinking and decision-making and put you at risk, that’s not a good plan. There are men who would take advantage of that.

Since I quit drinking five years ago, I’ve noticed how often workplace socializing is tied to alcohol — and I’m increasingly ill at ease with the assumption that everybody drinks. How can employers support people who don’t drink, whether they’re recovering alcoholics or abstain for other reasons?

We advise employers to have non-alcoholic choices for employees, just as you’d have non-meat choices for meals. If I were the HR person, I would meet with any employee whom I knew was in recovery and develop strategies for how to navigate those events. I’d give that person advice and support.

The U of M incident — or multiple incidents — has helped many of us recognize the prevalence of sexual harassment, despite women’s gains in all sectors of society. Or is harassment tied more broadly to the prevalence of rape and domestic violence?

Sexual harassment was not a subject when I started in the workplace. I’m 62. I’m literally a grandmother in terms of the women’s movement and the subject of the relationship between the sexes. I founded a rape-crisis center in the 1970s as an undergraduate in Nebraska. It still serves victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and child abuse.

For years now women have been coming forward to say: “No, we’re not going to tolerate sexual assault.” Prevention of sexual harassment — and recognition of harassment — evolved from that.

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