As an ad-sales executive with Forbes magazine, Terry Lavin worked hard to earn his reputation as a dependable drinking buddy.
“I just basically rented space at P.J. Clarke’s," he said, referring to the Midtown Manhattan watering hole. “I was always the last to leave, always had a cocktail in my hand."
In a business built on likability, the role helped him succeed. Until 2010, when he decided to give his body a break and quit drinking for six months. His health got better; his business did not.
“I would call guys I was friendly with, guys who had their hands on big ad budgets, to see if they wanted to go to happy hour or get something to eat," he recalled, “And they’d say: ‘Are you drinking? No? Don’t worry about it.’ "
So much for the benefits of the sober life.
Even as three-martini lunches and whiskey-fueled staff meetings become harder to find outside of cable TV, plenty of American business rituals continue to revolve around alcohol. Whether it’s courting a client, sketching out a deal or simply proving you’re a team player, quaffing a round of beers is arguably more vital to many jobs than nailing a round of golf.
For professionals who abstain from alcohol — for health, religion, recovery or simple preference — it can sometimes seem harder to get ahead if you’re not willing to throw one back.
“You’re expected to drink, and drinking is part of what you do, and there’s a little bit of circumspection if you say you don’t do it," said Link Christin, director of a special treatment program for legal professionals started last year by Hazelden, a network of alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation centers based in Minnesota. “If you say you don’t drink, you have to deal with the suspicion that you can’t play the game."
To find that attitude in action, look no further than this year’s presidential campaign. As a part of his pitch to voters that Mitt Romney, a teetotaler Mormon, is different from most Americans, President Barack Obama has made a conspicuous display of his own regular-guy fondness for beer.
For less public figures, the notion that people who don’t drink can’t perform in business — or, worse, are somehow untrustworthy — can impede professional progress.
“There is a perception almost that you’re impotent," said one nondrinker, an editor at a liquor-focused lifestyle magazine who asked not to be identified because many of his co-workers don’t know he recently entered a 12-step program.
Professional disadvantages to sobriety range from the literal — the editor had to decline a potential promotion because it would have involved wine tasting — to subtle.
“I regularly turn down lunches and dinners with industry people that I would have jumped at in the past," the editor said. “I just can’t go to dinner with a winemaker and tell him: ‘No, thank you. I’m not tasting those.’ "
One hardly has to work directly with alcohol to experience this. On Wall Street, where a “models and bottles" lifestyle prevails, those who don’t drink “complain that they can’t close a deal, can’t even get into early negotiations because they won’t engage in drinking behaviors," said John Crepsac, a New York City therapist who counsels Wall Street workers in recovery.
Social scientists refer to it as “social capital," the amount of economic potential to be harnessed from one’s capacity to fit in.
“There were times I knew the guys were going out with customers that could help advance my career," said one nondrinking Wall Street trader who asked to remain anonymous because his employer doesn’t allow staff members to talk to the media, “but it was just unspoken: ‘Yeah, we won’t invite him ’cause we’ll probably get up to some drinking and he won’t partake, so what’s the point?’"
Of course, sobriety and success are not mutually exclusive. Warren Buffett, Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Larry Ellison are all lifetime abstainers. Whether or not he wins, Romney hasn’t lacked for success, either.
And sober women might actually benefit from an old double standard. “Men are still expected to get together and go wild, but in some ways it’s frowned upon if the woman engages in it," Crepsac said, noting that few of his female patients have complained that sobriety hurt their careers. “There are plenty of things for which women are discriminated against in the workplace, but this isn’t one of them."
Still, research supports the idea that nondrinkers have a harder time climbing the corporate ladder. Multiple studies have shown that moderate drinkers earn more money than those who don’t drink, though heavy drinkers earn less than moderate drinkers.
That pressure to perform can sometimes cause professionals in recovery to backslide. This is one reason that Hazelden created a support group especially for lawyers who are trying to stay sober.