Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Want Talent? Drink at Lunch!

Cities obsess over attracting talent these days. I happen to think almost none of them are actually serious about it. But if they were, how should they go about doing it?

Most cities are in a fiscal bind right now, so for some time I’ve been asking myself what cities could do that would cost little to no money that could create a material uptick in their attractiveness to younger, college degreed people. I plan to start occasionally posting some of these.

My idea for today is a very simple one: change the local business culture so that it is not just tacitly tolerated but actively accepted to drink alcohol at lunch again.

I’ve never watched Mad Men, but assume it is a semi-romantic but ultimately disapproving portrayal of old school business where men go out for three martini lunches and sexually harass their secretaries and such. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Rather, I’m thinking the more European approach. Admit it, anyone who has ever worked in Europe and enjoyed a glass of wine or a beer with lunch has said to themselves, “Why don’t we do this?” Well, why don’t we?

I certainly never came of age in the “glory days” of bad boy behavior in business. The importance of professionalism, even when off duty, was stressed to me from day one, albeit in a less rulebound manner than today. But even I’ve noticed the increasingly “no fun” and “no risk too small to tolerate” mindset that’s more common in the business world today. The city that changed some of that in its business culture, that went back to a definition of professionalism based more around an expectation of the use of good judgment, not just CYA rules, might be able to differentiate itself.

A tactical and straightforward way to do this is simply to start drinking at lunch again. It’s tangible, it’s visible to anyone coming in for a job interview, and it lends itself to great marketing and visuals.

I realize this is probably easier said that done. Corporations, as I noted, are increasingly about risk mitigation today, and properly so in many respects. Many downtown employees work for government agencies, where there is a different public expectation. And many companies are headquartered elsewhere, so personnel policies are set far away.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And this one very simply is just a matter of will. It should be especially easier to pull off in smaller cities, where convening a business leader summit and gaining broad based buy-in should be easier. The cost is minimal, the potential marketing splash huge, the value in recruitment tangible.

If you’re a Midwest or other city looking to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, here’s a way to do it.

Topics: Talent Attraction, Urban Culture

22 Responses to “Want Talent? Drink at Lunch!”

  1. jim says:

    20 years ago I worked for an Indiana software company that had a culture that tacitly accepted having a beer (or two) with lunch. I enjoyed that culture and liked having the freedom to join the guys in a brew over a cheeseburger. I didn’t drink at lunch very often, though, because I didn’t like how sleepy a beer made me in the afternoon!

  2. al says:

    Sounds like the New Orleans mindset, only with better flood protection… count me in.

  3. Curt says:

    I worked for a small heat treat equipment OEM in east central Indiana for about 10 years before I moved to Indianapolis. It was a small, rural community but the business we did was sending equipment to Europe, Asia and South America quite often.

    They had hired a “consultant” of sorts at one point to attract some other types of customers. I remember the owner’s son, a sales associate, going out to lunch with the new hire once and coming back and commenting, not quite but approaching outrage, about how the new hire had a beer with a potential customer at lunch.

    I cant say that this started the downward spiral that eventually led to the new hire’s eventual firing, but it didnt put him in a good light. Keep in mind, this is about 10 years ago, in a rural business setting. Obviously people’s mind sets operate differently in communities like that, but I thought it related well in this story.


  4. Tim says:

    There are lots of business in Austin where this acceptable (I work at one), but most people don’t do it. That post lunch sleepy feeling gets intensely magnified if you have a beer.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    How does a city change the local business culture?

    I suppose one way is to make sure businesses are in walking distance from a watering hole. But my experience is that the business drinking culture is alive and well. It isn’t openly promoted, but any server or tech worker could tell you that the booze still flows freely during lunch. My wife is in the tech industry and when the company was in downtown Boulder, you might say there was a drinking cult. So much so that during the end-of-quarter rush, managers walked around the office with a drinking cart. Sometimes even the executives were out there on the floor playing bartender.

    That culture started dying out after the dotcom bust. Or, it might be better to write that it went more underground. Tolerance for the behavior ebbs and flows. This is the province of businesses, not civic infrastructure.

    The legacy laws of times long gone are a big impediment. PA booze laws are byzantine. If a city could make drinking less shameful, then that might help. But such changes aren’t likely.

    Exceptions are the anarchic spaces of shrinking cities. Gen Y mingles with Brat Pack relics (when I lived in Minneapolis, Al Nye’s was the spot for such a wonderful culture clash). You can see this on display in the Rust Belt episode of No Reservations. As Aaron knows, I’m an evangelist for Youngstown, Ohio. Bar fun spills out easily (and illegally) out into the streets/alleys. The frontier mentality rules.

    These cities are playgrounds, populated with gorgeous architecture. Breaking into a grand old church and holding a concert isn’t easily replicated in other parts of the country. That culture has taken root in Youngstown and now defines the city. (Google \thinkers and drinkers\ Youngstown.) And as Bourdain points out, no shrinking city tries to market its Rust Belt Chic assets.

    Good discussion about this subject going on at the City-Data forum:

  6. John says:

    Yes please. I’ll have a Sam Adams.

    Seriously though, my company would never allow it. Safety is paramount in the company culture.

  7. Jim, I think you nailed it that the culture is there, but underground. Or at least, it is not something that is just anticipated as a default. For example, if I meet someone out for a networking lunch, what are the odds either of us will order a beer? Probably pretty low, unless we’re in creative fields of some sort. We’ll know the culture changed when the default is Yes, or at least that there’s no raised eyebrows if someone dares order a glass of sauvignon blanc.

  8. Mark Miller says:

    Restaurants could encourage this by adding \half glass\ portions to their menus during lunch. This way you can safely project the appearance of moderation while loosening up and still avoid drowsiness. Such a portion would be more in line with the typical european one, and would improve lunchtime margins per patron too.

    No reasonable person would think you a lush for ordering a half glass of Christian Moerlein or Chardonnay with your half sandwich and side salad. And if it stretches to two, it still probably wouldn’t raise many eyebrows. Here in Cincinnati, beer with lunch was a blue collar tradition for most of our 200+ year history.

  9. Eric M says:

    Beer with lunch was tolerated in Chicago for a very long time – into the 1980s, I think.

    Two things killed it:

    1) MADD made drinking seem socially suspect in far more situations. MADD did a lot of good things, but they also made people want to see responsible and sensitive to the negative potential consequences of alcohol – if you shouldn’t drive after even one drink, why should you work after one drink?

    2) Insurance. Not just physical accidents, but especially in a public company, if a mental mistake is made by someone who had a drink with lunch, how doe the company defend against that?

    Even in Europe, drinking with lunch is much less common than it used to be, probably for much the same reason. I’d love to have a glass of wine or a beer with lunch, but I’m not sure how the protect a balance and moderate the liability factor.

  10. cdc guy says:

    I’m apparently older than many of you, starting my professional career at the beginning of the 80’s. It was understood that drinking at lunch was okay then if the senior person at the table ordered a drink, or if it were a “special” or celebratory (i.e. birthday or going-away) occasion. It was also okay in “foreign” (i.e. out of town) locations if the senior member of the other company was drinking.

    I would hasten to add that in those days, some of the senior guys (yes, they were all still men) did come up in the Mad Men era. One even took me to a place that featured a “lingerie lunch” with strolling models…but that was an Italian-American guy in North Jersey.

  11. Jim Meredith says:

    I think it was Jimmy Carter who called attention to the inequality exemplified by the privilege of the expense-account-supported “three martini lunch.” It does seem there has been a decline in the quality of restaurants, an increase in the number of downtown fast food joints, and shorter lunch periods ever since.

    What seems mostly to be missed from the absence of alcohol is an absence of collegiality. The functional lunch at the counter or the take-out at the desk detracts from those opportunities to open up to others, explore shared interests, and build a sense of community around work. Yes, talent, creativity and innovation may be casualties aligned with the loss of a more casual lunches.

    (Perhaps associated, and for your consideration, is what I believe to be a city saver – the two-hour lunch period. Too short of a time to go home, long enough time to allow camaraderie, shopping, reading, and play, and perhaps supportive of hotels and pied-terres…specially after a three-martini lunch!)

  12. Great insights, Jim. I’m all in favor of long lunches. I don’t mind working late to make up for it either. It’s important for team building, staying close to clients, and networking.

  13. west town ed says:

    This discussion brings back memories that go back many years.

    As a junior officer at Wright-Patterson AFB, circa mid-60s, a small group of us would sometimes go to lunch together at the officer’s club where we could enjoy half-dollar martinis and, of course, we would have a couple, and it was generally accepted that if we went to lunch there, we would not be expected to perform any useful work for the rest of the day.

    [If I could add a footnote, I would explain that at the Wright-Pat Officer’s Club, happy hour martinis at the basement CAVU Lounge were half-priced. Thus, we drank a lot. And smoked a lot too as cigarettes were only $2.00 a carton at the base exchange.]

    Flash forward a decade and I was working in the West Loop in a computer sales office. There, the “forgotten” afternoons came after a big sale when the salesmen treated his technical support team to lunch in Greek Town, a short walk away, where we drank cheap retsina and cheered the flaming cheeses. And took the CTA Ravenswood or Howard north, or the Northwestern’s 3:15 to the suburbs.

    Another decade later and I was living in Sydney and celebrating 20 years with the same company. The GM of the Australian company hosted a lunch for the 8 or 9 of us where we celebrated the grand occasion with a three hour lunch with at least an equal number of bottles of wine.

    Drinking a lunch (on this scale) = equals huge hangovers a few hours later and a very bad afternoon. It was understood then that a celebration lunch = a lost afternoon.

    Another decade (or so) later and I can barely tolerate a small glass of beer or wine during the day.

    Tough to do anywhere in France, as I discovered on several trips there.

    A lesson here? Nope.

  14. Ziggy says:

    Intriguing topic. The closer that the Midwest hews to its traditional northern European, Mediterranean, Native American, Creole and Caribbean cultural roots, the more unique and attractive we will be to the rest of the world. Less Calvinist / Protestant work ethic. More wineries, breweries, locally grown food, local art, music and theater… and the time to enjoy them. Next summer, unplug your kids and take them on a roadtrip down the Mississippi, or up the Missouri or Ohio!

  15. When you say “change the local business culture,” who is the imagined subject of this verb? Is it in the power of a particular city’s business leaders to do this? Isn’t it more of a national cultural evolution, given the extent to which culture is now transmitted by national-level media?

    In Australia it’s still very much OK to drink at lunch, though what I observe in Sydney’s lunch hour is that those who aren’t having a glass over lunch are in the Botanic Garden being put through grueling aerobic routines by sadistic drill sergeants. Of course, these may be the same people on alternate days.

    In any case, I’m unable to correlate Australia’s culture of lunch-drinking with any of its differences from America in attracting talent. It’s a small-n problem.

  16. Jon Speer says:

    Next time we meet, let’s grab a beer.

  17. That’s right, Jon. No more meetings at Starbucks.

  18. Wad says:

    I don’t see the loosening of alcohol during recreational periods of the work day loosening, except for independent contractors or artisans of their own means. If you’re a Dilbert, there won’t be hope.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

    There are both problems of reality and perception when it comes to drinking while working.

    The real problem is the liability issue. Your noon drinker could be your company’s workers’ comp, insurance, legal and/or human resources nightmare by 4 p.m.

    Remember, this is alcohol we’re dealing with. The alcohol by volume is a known quantity; the employees’ tolerance to it varies widely. The “I love you” drunk, the “I’ll kill all of you in here” drunk, the “My life sucks and I’m going to jump off this building” drunk, the “Who dares me to Xerox my genitals and give a copy to everyone?” drunk, and the “I’m sick of [religious, ethnic or gender group here] having it so good all the time” drunk each pose unique sets of problems.

    Then there’s perception. You see your bank teller tying one on at lunch, then you see that the line is moving noticeably slower in the afternoon and people mutter about miskeyed transactions and so on. Companies are afraid what a lush might do for their PR.

    For right now, let the corporate world destroy you for eight hours. You have the other 16 to destroy yourself. That they’ll never take away. :>

  19. Walker Evans says:

    After mulling it over for awhile, I still think Aaron’s initial drinking angle makes for a sharp contrast to what is typically acceptable for lunch-time behavior in a corporate environment. So it does a great job at bringing to light the overall strict boundaries associated with business lunch hours, even if the encouragement of drinking at noon doesn’t sounds like a very feasible program to try to implement.

    Having spent nearly 10 years in various white-collar work environments, I’m all too familiar with the 3,600 seconds allotted to each employee for spending during designated lunch periods, and the reprimands that can follow if the rules get stretched too far. Of course, some managers can be a little bit lax on the rules, but in many environments, being chronically late coming back form lunch is grounds for some form of work-place punishment.

    Things completely changed for me once I started working for myself. Earlier this week, I had a leisurely lunch with a friend to chat about a new arts initiative I’m conceptualizing for 2010. There was no beer involved at our lunch, but the fact that we both work in environments where we can take a 90 minute lunch break meant that our time spent collaborating on a creative idea wasn’t bound by a time limit.

    Of course, not all lunch breaks are spent working on ideas to help make the world a better place, but the end result can be the same after something more casual. After my particular extended lunch, I found myself energized, excited, and feeling even more productive once returning to my desk. It was invigorating to not be bound by the strict regulations I’ve faced elsewhere, but it’s also frustrating to know that I’m probably in the minority. I’m willing to bet that younger folks who are able to take a relaxed lunch make up less than 1% of the professional workforce. If you’ve ever attended a Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon, you’ve probably noticed how few of those coveted “young professionals” are able to take that 90 minute lunch break. It’s only the upper-management who give themselves that leniency. I find it disheartening that even when it comes to something as specific as engaging in a civic forum and becoming more involved in community affairs, flexible scheduling is something that most workers have to officially request in advance, if they’re even allowed to take the time at all.

    Perhaps a re-education aimed at upper-management is in order to help them understand why relaxing a bit on the rules could:

    * Help foster creativity through encouraged mid-day civic engagement
    * Decrease stress related to the lunchtime “rush”
    * Increase mid-day productivity with a more reenergizing meal time
    * Provide a better “workforce culture” that could serve our city as a more attractive environment to find a job

    I’m guessing that the hardest part would be the implementation of a program like this. Anyone have any thoughts on how we can turn something like this into a widely accepted change in corporate policy?

  20. Walker, great comment. Very thoughtful – thanks for sharing.

  21. cdc guy says:

    Walker, I’ll play the middle-aged obstacle here. The short answer is that it’s probably not possible in this code-driven litigious era. Nor is it possible where even “think-work” has become excessively planned and proceduralized: “the system” as salvation.

    The only way I can see to get more flexibility at work is to flee and work for a much smaller organization, something I’ve been doing progressively over a 30-year working career. Or to work for a mostly-creative organization (arts, design, etc.). We are unlikely to turn the great corporate battleship back to emulate a proprietor-driven era of civic involvement.

    Even my own business was bigger than the office I work in now. While an employer I tried to look at each person individually, but I also understood that too much flexibility looks to many (most) people like “unfairness”…and that some people will always take advantage of flexibility, and then use it against you at firing time.

    Again: no easy answer, maybe no answer at all.

  22. Joseph says:

    I’m from Portland and have never hesitated to order a microbrew or glass of wine with lunch.

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