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Should we call time on boozy work events? | accountingweb
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Should we call time on boozy work events?

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As Deloitte’s vice-chair has left the Big Four firm after a drunken tirade at a work event, Blaire Palmer asks if accountants should raise the bar on their behaviour.

24th Oct 2022
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This week, an investigation by the Financial Times revealed that a senior partner at Deloitte has left the firm after he made sexist, racist and bullying comments towards other team members at a social event at a Royal Ascot event in June. 

Stephen Cahill was reported as being heavily inebriated and he offended every single minority group with the rant. The next day the 14-year tenured Deloitte exec called those he offended to apologise and then reported the incident. 

An internal investigation was launched after the tirade, but much to the anger of the anonymous Deloitte staff quoted in the FT, Cahill’s exit from the company was officially labelled as retirement. 

Cahill’s alcohol-fueled diatribe follows a string of drunken controversies coming out of the Big Four: PwC recently came under fire after an auditor suffered a serious head injury while attending a work event involving “pub golf”, while an EY senior partner behaved in a sexually “aggressive” manner to a junior trainee on a work ski trip last year.

Drinking culture

Back in the 80s when I started working, drinking was very much part of the culture. At one weekly newspaper, I worked for we spent the first half of the week in the pub before pulling the paper together in the second half of the week. When I worked in radio there were certainly presenters who went on air half-cut and, as long as they could get the job done, a blind eye was turned. 

When I started working with businesses as a coach and consultant I learned that “What happens at the conference, stays at the conference”. The work hard, play hard rules were very much in place. Alongside that attitude, I witnessed and experienced all kinds of inappropriate behaviour. A woman tried to put her cigarette out on my shoulder at a work Christmas party. A conference delegate somehow got my hotel room number and turned up at my door in the middle of the night. I listened to numerous late-night nonsense conversations, many peppered with outdated and intolerant attitudes. 

Which brings us to Cahill leaving Deloitte after his drunken rant offended every minority group. Quite the achievement. 

We all know that, in the past, this would not have made the FT. It would not have resulted in a senior person’s “retirement”. It might even have been laughed about. But things have changed. Is it time to rethink the role of alcohol when it comes to work-related social events? 

Alcohol and trust?

Of Deloitte’s 235 “ethics cases” raised in the latest financial year, 13% relate to issues around alcohol and substance abuse. Whether it’s a company ski trip, a day at the races or an awards ceremony, there will always be a small number of employees who go too far. This is especially true when there is a free bar and when the senior staff are modelling their behaviour for the junior ones. 

Levels of trust in authority figures are at an all-time low. We don’t trust the media, politicians or business leaders. But we do trust our own friends and neighbours and our work colleagues. We trust our own CEO. For now. 

When you live in a distrusting world, you have to take trust very seriously, particularly as a leader in a business. You can’t get anything done if people don’t trust you. And trust is easily broken. In a cynical world, people are waiting for you to prove you deserve their trust. 

If alcohol weakens your filter it could do long-lasting damage to your credibility to lead, far more so than in the past when we were more forgiving of leaders and gave them an amount of respect just for being in power. 

If you can’t be trusted around alcohol, maybe it’s best to take alcohol out of the event. 

Alcohol and the power gradient

Former nuclear submarine captain and author, David L Marquet says there’s always a power gradient if “your position gives you more authority or power” than other people. In the past, we reinforced this gradient with executive dining rooms, reserved parking and even different working attire. Hierarchy worked. People did what they were told and we hoped, one day, we’d be the ones to order other people around. 

Today, we want to reduce the power gradient. We want to create psychologically safe environments, we want people to feel empowered to take more responsibility, and we lean towards flatter structures. This allows people to challenge more easily and not feel the need to overly censor their communication with their seniors. We get better ideas, more engagement and attract more capable people when we allow them to shine. 

But when alcohol gets involved the power gradient becomes hard to navigate. The drunken senior person is, in a sense, breaking down the gradient through their informal behaviour. But it’s still coming from the boss. Tomorrow this person will still be the boss and will be making decisions about everyone’s future. It is not a level playing field. 

This puts junior people in a difficult position. They feel pressure to tolerate the behaviour because it comes from someone senior to them in the gradient. And maybe it’s OK because it’s reducing the formality of the relationship. But it’s also inappropriate and offensive. How can that be rectified on Monday morning? It can’t. 

And if that person is subtly “retired” by the organisation, despite claiming it has a zero-tolerance policy towards inappropriate behaviour, the power gradient is reinforced. If you’re senior, different rules apply. 

This one situation sends a message about the true culture of the organisation more powerfully than posters displaying the company’s corporate values or that unconscious bias training you ran. 

Alcohol and WFH

We used to see our work mates more than our friends and family. And for some that is still true. When we worked so intensively together it made sense that we would party together too. We didn’t have lives outside of work. Our colleagues were our friends. We didn’t have the opportunity to make others. 

But 90% of Gen Y and Gen Z employees say they have no intention of working from the office full time ever again. Today’s emphasis is on balance. We want to prioritise our families. We want to see our real friends. We want to be at home. 

Even in the past two years, through the pandemic, I’ve noticed a shift in emphasis. Yes, we have missed the social side of work and a return to offices meets some of that need. But few of us complained during lockdown that we missed the forced fun of work social events. 

With the exception of a really great Christmas do or the Accounting Excellence Awards, many people discovered that they were just as happy at home in a onesie most evenings than sitting awkwardly at the pub with people from their team listening to the boss’s stories of their latest triathlon preparations and how their new home build is progressing. 

It may be time to accept that the wild partying days of business are, if not over, reserved for special occasions. And to remind ourselves, as the more senior people in the room, that we are never off duty as leaders. Our authority comes not from our job title but from the trust and respect we generate. It can be broken in an instant.

 

Replies (26)

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By Paul Crowley
24th Oct 2022 15:23

'As Deloitte’s vice-chair has left the Big Four firm after a drunken tirade at a work event, Blaire Palmer asks if accountants should raise the bar on their behaviour.'
No. That ignorant prat should
But he reported himself. Accountants do that sort of thing. He is also no longer there.
What the blazes makes you think all accountants are evil drunkards?

You seem to have a habit of blaming accountants for all of societies ills
You imply that other trades and professions are clear of such issues.
Big 4 culture is not replicated in lower tier firms

If you want to pour vitriol on the Big 4 culture, held yourself, but leave oiks like me out of it.

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
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By Justin Bryant
24th Oct 2022 16:12

I agree. I went to loads of harmless fun, boozy Deloitte events, including at the races. Why should this bloke spoil it all for the rest of us? The author is overlooking all those 1,000s of fun, harmless boozy events and so comes across as a bit of a killjoy.

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By Trethi Teg
24th Oct 2022 15:35

I assume that the audit partners of all the big 4 were p****d when they signed off all the audit reports which proved worthless over the last 10 years, otherwise how could they have screwed them up.

The public's confidence is damaged far more severely by the excesses and screw ups of the big 4 than by staff having a few beers.

Another consultant seeking to drum up business free of charge in your publication.

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By Open all hours
24th Oct 2022 18:35

Managing to offend every single minority group in one single rant is quite an achievement. Must have gone on for hours.

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Replying to Open all hours:
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By Paul Crowley
24th Oct 2022 19:24

Impossible to offend every minority group directly
Needs someone to be offended on their behalf to achieve this miraculous task
But the comment is clearly third hand. Hearsay evidence is just legal detritus.
BUT hells bells the prat was pi55ed.
Legally incapacitated
Probably has no idea what he said and trusted others' recollections for the apologies that he made

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
By Duggimon
25th Oct 2022 09:40

Well at least he has you, hearing about it fourth hand, leaping to his defence.

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Replying to Open all hours:
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By bobsto12
25th Oct 2022 10:20

I read he was responsible for advising on diversity strategy. You just cant make this stuff up.

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By Open all hours
24th Oct 2022 18:37

Next rant could involve the way it is too easy to duplicate comments on Aweb.

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Replying to Open all hours:
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By Paul Crowley
24th Oct 2022 19:14

Brilliant
Aweb does have delays that cause this problem

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By mkowl
25th Oct 2022 09:33

I think watching the news these days makes it essential to retain them

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By Duggimon
25th Oct 2022 09:42

I really don't think alcohol was the cause of the various offensive behaviours. It might have prevented these individuals' instinct for self preservation from kicking in, but there's no doubt in my mind at least that someone who's racist or a sex pest when drunk is a racist or sex pest all the time and only more likely to out themself when drunk.

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Replying to Duggimon:
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By RetiredTax
25th Oct 2022 19:07

+1

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By lme
25th Oct 2022 09:43

I find work more enriching if I can mix with people from different backgrounds. Having boozy events excludes Muslims. It also raises the risk of people behaving inappropriately. So, I prefer more moderated events though I understand how tempting the boozy ones are to help people unwind.

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Replying to lme:
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By Ian McTernan CTA
25th Oct 2022 11:27

Having boozy events doesn't exclude anyone. Muslims can choose not to drink at those events, but shouldn't try and shove their values down other people's throats. there is no one forcing anyone to drink and you can certainly have alcohol free drinks and enjoy yourself. One of my friends from years ago gave up drinking (when he realised he had a major issue with it) but was the life and soul of the party and first up dancing on the tables.

If they feel they are so weak that they might be tempted, then they shouldn't attend, but that is their problem.

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By tedbuck
25th Oct 2022 10:01

Just to level the playing field it is my understanding that the legal profession follows much the same sort of boozy dos.

Probably not the most intelligent way to go about things if reports I have heard are accurate. It all comes back to declining standards. I worked for PMM a long time ago and their Xmas celebration was the epitome of good behaviour the year I attended. But that was in Birmingham so perhaps it is the London crowd who are so dysfunctional. They generally tend to be more hyped.

So I think it is a general behaviour problem and not peculiar to accountants and lawyers.

Too much entitlement and too little responsibility.

Gosh isn't that boring?

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Replying to tedbuck:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
25th Oct 2022 22:24

Well, the Hodgson Impey trainee training course in 1986 was certainly afloat, the final night before travelling home on the Friday there was a meal, vast amounts of free drink and it certainly carried though until 2-3.00 am. (think it was Warwick Uni but cannot now be sure)

Someone then managed to throw up over their bed linen, dump it in a bath, switch on the taps and forget about it.

At circa 7.00 am I woke up, got out of bed and realised my feet were very wet, the floor of my room was sodden, the bathroom across the hall had water pouring out of it most either spreading over the landing or heading over the top of the stair like a waterfall.

The only bright spot was I had hung up my clothes before going to bed.

I can say that in truly professional manner most people seemed to turn up for the morning discussion (It was audit/law related) before heading back to their offices, but I doubt anyone really took in much. (We were luckily taking two trains back to Glasgow so no driving)

Somewhere, upstairs, there is a packet of photos, at least one featuring a current RSM partner.

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By 2TunTed
25th Oct 2022 10:08

We are all expected to behave and those in positions of authority are generally expected to set an example. Mostly they do but there are always some who can't always manage it. Usually when they have had a drink or three.
The answer is simple. If alcohol compromises your behaviour, don't drink. That's it. It seems to me that the numbers of people who restrict their alcohol intake or avoid it together has significantly increased.

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By bobsto12
25th Oct 2022 10:15

In the late 80s when I started work boozy friday lunchtimes were compulsory in most companies.
Things are very different now and a it would be a disciplinary offence in a lot of places now to turn up drunk.
The world has changed.

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By Mr J Andrews
25th Oct 2022 11:21

NO - they should not be banned. So called ''Boozy'' work events are what individuals make of them.
There was a time, not so long ago when partners / senior members of the 'Profession 'could get away with racist comments , groping , bullying and the likes as there was no one to turn to within the company to complain to. Thankfully we've moved on.
This rare incident, perpetrated by Cahill - clearly a jumped up, frustrated piece of s### couldn't handle his drink, attempted the motions of remorse once the hangover cleared. Whether out of true regret for showing his true colours whilst under the influence or fearing the push still remains to be seen.
Arguably the other - current - drunken antics mentioned are similar rarities rather than the iceberg tip. I can go back a decade to Blair's experiences where, what happened at the conference was expected at the conference.

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By towat
25th Oct 2022 11:21

I have just one question, what is a "work ski trip"?

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By tedbuck
25th Oct 2022 11:42

I presume that when there is a problem too big to solve it is carted to the top of a snowy mountain where it is discussed and then when no answer is forthcoming it is sent down the hill with the least experienced skier who manages to lose it on the way and reaches the bottom empty handed (except for his ski sticks). Problem solved. Business travelling - a drink or two at the top and everyone happy.
Or perhaps I am too cynical - but then look at the fines!

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Replying to tedbuck:
Caroline
By accountantccole
25th Oct 2022 12:58

If only it were that easy.......
From
Me in the Alps

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By indomitable
25th Oct 2022 12:24

I wish I'd met him at that event. Nowadays there are are far less consequences for bad behaviour.

A generation ago he would have been told in no uncertain terms to Zip it!

Different world now.

Don't blame the drink!

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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
25th Oct 2022 17:41

I think the 'old school' (like Cahill, now ex-Deloitte) need to catch up. Such behaviour used to be acceptable in that it was tolerated by those who drank nothing or in moderation. Now, thank goodness, it's simply NOT ON.

Related memories of my time in practice:
1 - In the early 1980s my wife came with me to a Touche Ross (now Deloitte) tax department christmas party in London. She still remembers the partner in charge of my team quickly getting legless and embarrassing himself. Her regard for the partner and for the firm never recovered. He, meanwhile, continued his steady rise to the top!

2 - In the early 1990s I was with a smaller firm in the top 20. The local wine bar acted as a substitute office canteen. Many office meetings between 2 or 3 people, or management groups took place in the wine bar - along with wine of course!

I think it's a good thing that times have changed - though I do admit to probably drinking more red wine now than I did when I was younger!

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By creamdelacream
25th Oct 2022 20:22

Note to self, don't invite Blaire to our next work outing

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By Coluseld
04th Nov 2022 06:28

Networking and team building are much better achieved whilst participating in a fun-activity. Get creative!
If you are holding a drinks event, make sure that non-drinkers have a proper, adult drink available to them.

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