The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 26, 2013

Watercooler: Abstinence Doesn't Make Them Fonder

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: At my current job, I made it clear early on when invited to happy hours that I do not drink. My body can't tolerate alcohol; it is not within my control. It then became clear that this was a problem for the other employees and supervisors. Now, I don't get invited out at all, and many of the other employees at my level get assignments from the drinking supervisors that I don't get, get cut tons more slack and are treated more favorably. I am purposely left off the emails, or not asked along even when I am sitting in the office as they are getting ready to go. I only know what is going on because one of the other associates, whom I get along with, has told me. That, and it is all over their Facebook pages.

I know all business requires some level of this type of socializing, and I love to go out, talk, go to happy hours — I just don't want to drink. Throughout my career, this has always been a problem, and I feel it has held me back. What should I do?

A: In certain professions and cultures, boozing is a bonding rite, and I'm unfortunately not aware of any discrimination protections for teetotalers. But I wouldn't say "all business" requires you to get soused to get ahead; otherwise, there would be a lot more 25-year-old CEOs with gout.

My first impulse is to wonder how you've "made" your abstinence "clear" to your co-workers. An abrupt "I don't drink" sends a different message from a low-key "I can't drink" — and if you have a gussied-up soda in hand, words should be unnecessary.

If someone is trying to shove a beer into your other hand and not taking "Thanks, but I'm good" for an answer, there are ways to demur without being labeled Captain Buzzkill: "I'm driving" or "I'm cutting back." I'm not normally a fan of subterfuge, but such responses work well for recovering alcoholics and secretly pregnant women when full honesty would be irrelevant and potentially disruptive.

But none of that will fool your current co-workers, who know all too well that you Do Not Drink. So, see if that friendly associate can get you invited past the velvet rope. Once your colleagues realize that you are not judging them (right?) and want to socialize, they may start inviting you — especially if you're occasionally willing to play designated driver.

If your sobriety continues to be a handicap, perhaps your workplace is suffering from a maturity deficit (party pictures plastered on Facebook) or you're in the wrong line of business ("Throughout my career, this has always been a problem"). A change of scene may be worth a shot.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.