Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

Recruitment on the rocks

Does the recruitment industry have a problematic relationship with alcohol?
Recruitment on the rocks

Last year, insurance market Lloyd’s of London made headlines for banning staff from drinking alcohol during working hours. Following an analysis of disciplinary procedures, the firm decided to prohibit their employees from drinking between 9-5. Whilst the move was to ensure the workplace was in line with the ‘modern’ and ‘high-performance culture’ the firm wanted to embrace, according to an internal memo, reactions to the decision were split. Many described the move as heavy-handed - one worker compared closing the deal in a pub over a pint equivalent to having a glass of wine at lunch - with the insurance sector’s proclivity for alcohol as a social lubricant, harmless.

Yet, this move, alongside a more concerted effort towards wellbeing at work, doesn’t mean Britain’s professional drinking culture has sobered up – not yet anyway. A recent report from think tank Demos found excessive drinking cultures persist across UK industries, from law to construction, with 40% of young workers citing that the drinking culture at their work is important. In fact, a separate survey from Willis Towers Watson found that nearly one in five employees (17%) think that their employer contributes to unhealthy levels of drinking among staff. Although not widely researched, another sector perceived as having a thirst for booze, is recruitment. Lysha Holmes, Consultant and Owner of rec2rec firm, Qui Recruitment, agrees, saying that during her career, successes have always been linked to alcohol. 



"I recognise that the recruitment industry has long had a poorly perceived image of champagne-swigging, Charlie-snorting, ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ types...



...and a lot has been done to create this,” Holmes, who started her career in the sector in the nineties – the decade of the dance revolution and alcopops - recalls.

“Aside from the stereotypes, the fact is, the industry is strongly linked to alcohol,” she continues. “Boosting internal PR with booze-laden lunch clubs for the top performers; team nights out with open bars, smashing a target and earning a magnum of champagne. Alcohol is seen as a reward to entice recruiters to do better.”

A Google search of the terms ‘Jordan Belfort’ and ‘recruitment’ compound this image, with several industry blogs touting the stockbroker’s work ethic, holding him up as a hero embodying the art of recruitment sales and the ‘play hard’ disposition. And whilst this ‘boys club’ in recruitment may be a sweeping generalisation, only indicative of certain firms’ cultures, reported incidents suggest alcohol may be fuelling this perception. For example, in 2016, a group of Michael Page recruiters were accused of extreme drunkenness and violent behaviour during a trip organised by the company to a Ski Club in Australia. A separate firm’s Friday night booze-up resulted in two consultants receiving tattoos of the company logo on their chests. And, the recruitment firm of Apprentice winner, James White, recently made tabloid headlines for hiring a stripper for an X-rated bash for a new recruiter’s birthday.

Whilst these extreme incidents are isolated, it’s the culture around alcohol as a workplace reward which can cause a problem, especially if there is pressure to conform. The 2016 Demos report found that whilst 44% of workers drink with colleagues, and ten per cent with clients, nearly a third (29%) in the media and IT sectors and a quarter of those in the finance sector said they sometimes felt pressured to drink by their colleagues.


It’s this pressure, which Holmes, who made the decision to go sober last year, believes needs to end. The recruiter, who notes she is far from puritanical, tells us that she received an outpouring of support from fellow peers who feel isolated due to the obligation to drink as part of their job. “When I published a ‘sober fish’ blog celebrating my first year of sobriety, I received dozens of private messages from fellow recruiters who were grateful for my honesty,” Holmes explains. “Even business owners said they felt isolated in their recruitment companies, with some saying they felt obliged regularly to consume alcohol as part of their job. I totally understand that recruitment attracts individuals who tend to be sociable and outgoing in personality. However, I don’t understand why there is such focus on alcohol when, in my opinion, there are many other ways that success can be rewarded.”

"Alcohol is seen as a reward to entice recruiters to do better"

"There seemed to be a big drinking culture, and if you didn’t take part then you couldn’t be ‘one of the boys’. You had to always be willing to one-up the others in order to fit in."


A former recruiter, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, echoed Holmes’ experience. “I’ve seen a lot of drinking at work-related events – and it could get pretty messy. At one event, a man known to be a ‘party animal’ wanted to show off his tattoos but was so drunk he dropped his trousers round his ankles. After another event, I had to come into work the next day with a pounding hangover and had to dash to the toilet a few times to throw up. There seemed to be a big drinking culture, and if you didn’t take part then you couldn’t be ‘one of the boys’. You had to always be willing to one-up the others in order to fit in.”

Despite this, the use of alcohol to celebrate isn’t necessarily a negative and there’s no suggestion professionals ought to take a monastic vow. Furthermore, not all firms agree it’s a problem. “It plays its part in our celebrations and social aspects after work,” Wayne Hodgson, Managing Director at Red Eagle – the firm, whose logo is now etched onto two consultants - explains. “The use of champagne to celebrate and reward is seen as something special. In fact, all new recruits get a bottle to celebrate their first day at work.” When quizzed about the aforementioned incident, Hodgson saw it as harmless fun: “This is something you see on one of those teenage holiday programmes where a few beers result in waking up with their new girlfriend’s name tattooed on their body - fortunately I have a great working relationship with these guys.” Clearly, in Red Eagle’s case, alcohol is a positive way to create a collegiate workforce, whilst ensuring Hodgson’s company is a fun place to work.


Claire Stapley, Internal Recruiter at Barrington James, agrees that social events involving alcohol is fine, as staff get 'out of office' mode. “I think we can all agree that celebrating with a few drinks is always connotated in a positive way and I do believe that it allows you to form stronger relationships with your colleagues,” she says. Bradley Gough, Managing Director of Think Staffing Solutions, also enjoys partaking in happy hour with his staff. “Since joining the industry, alcohol has definitely played a key part in my development,” he states, adding that Friday night drinks helped him to grow internal relationships and have honest conversations.

In fact, a University of Pittsburgh study found that moderate amounts of alcohol consumed in a social setting can enhance social bonding and relieve negative emotions. Gough has also noticed that drinking with clients is a positive trend, with alcohol helping to develop those all-important business relationships. “I think recruitment as a whole has a healthy relationship with alcohol but there are always going to be people who abuse it, sitting in the pub every evening getting sloshed and then failing to turn up to work the next day,” he adds.


Although these examples show that alcohol, in moderation, can be a harmless social lubricant, Holmes thinks the sector needs to catch up with the UK’s wider focus on wellbeing. For example, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), fewer Brits are drinking every day, suggesting the public are developing a healthier relationship with alcohol. In fact, just two-fifths (39%) of the agencies Recruitment Grapevine polled say they reward staff with alcohol. This is why Holmes is optimistic that more firms will start creating a healthier mentality around reward and success. “With so much emphasis on mental health and mindfulness, alcohol consumption has been proven to be harmful,” she notes. “Those getting ahead of the curve now by encouraging retreats, good mental health and an overall focus on a healthy way of life will become the recruiters of choice for the future.”

Whilst the image of consultants as pub fixtures, competing with the fruit machines to be the last one standing may be skewed, it’s clear that alcohol is prevalent in the industry as a way to celebrate and socialise. However, it’s unclear whether recruiters are aware of the potential problems. Perhaps it will take more brave voices like Holmes’ to kickstart a cultural shift and raise awareness that not everyone is comfortable with such environments, although, Stapley believes that the industry is already ahead of the curve. “I know a lot of firms who encourage healthy living, offer gym memberships, do sport fundraising for charity,” she says. But, will they ever replace the pub? Probably not. “Life is too short to just focus on clean eating and health 24/7,” Stapley adds. “I know I'd rather celebrate my success with a G&T rather than a spin session.”