SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY
In college, Jon Hirschtick was a total frat bro: Zeta Beta Tau!
At one point, he spent a fair bit of time in Vegas casinos, playing blackjack. And he now runs a tech company in Cambridge.
Yet when he sees the way that booze has become such a fixture in the tech startup scene — from beer taps to whiskey decanters — Hirschtick is stunned.
“I’m totally against it,” says the former fraternity president, now 55. “I just think it’s crazy to have it be a fixed part of the workplace and available continuously and almost encouragingly.”
Besides, with the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace in the headlines, Hirschtick says, “You have to be an idiot not to know there’s a correlation between [alcohol consumption] and the environment it creates. It adds a tailwind to potentially problematic situations.”
Hirschtick is not quite a lone voice, but he’s certainly in the minority right now when it comes to putting a keg in the kitchen as a way to create a “loose” and “fun” workplace environment. As I’ve visited New England companies over the last decade, I’ve noticed a marked increase in craft beer, tequila, and fine single malts in visible spots around the office.
On a 2015 visit to the Cambridge outpost of Kayak, the travel search company, I counted 30 bottles of liquor behind the bar. Ketel One, Tanqueray, and WhistlePig rye whiskey were on offer in a secret “hideaway” room I visited in 2013 at Dyn, a Manchester, N.H., networking company. And last year, when the publicly traded marketing software maker HubSpot opened an expansion of its Cambridge digs, the company boasted of an indoor beer garden. (Sadly, a Twitter account that used to announce which beers were available at the company — “Just tapped: Longboard Island Lager” — has vanished.)
Booze “enhances culture, because it demonstrates a level of trust in your employees,” writes Raj Aggarwal, chief executive of the mobile startup Localytics, “and provides a natural opportunity to gather and socialize with your coworkers.”
At Pixability, a Boston startup focused on video advertising, different departments in the company “take turns planning the happy hour theme, and there’s a bit of friendly competition to make it memorable,” says chief executive Bettina Hein. One week might be soccer themed, another may involve painting projects, another making a gingerbread house.
“We often have special drinks that match the theme,” Hein says. The practice is “an opportunity for people from all functions [of the company] to socialize and get to know another better.”
At Robin, a Boston tech startup, chief operating officer Apollo Sinkevicius says, “Our insurance company and our lawyers know we have three taps open all day and two liquor carts. They have no issues because when you hire adults, they act like it.” The company, which makes technology for reserving conference rooms and has 37 employees, also offers soft drinks and healthy snacks “so people can treat themselves right during the day,” Sinkevicius adds. “Since about every person takes commuter rail or the T [to work], it is kind of nice to have a drink before leaving for the day on Friday.”
Even at Hirschtick’s company, Onshape, it’s not like Prohibition is in effect. “We have social events at the office, and we’ll bring in pizza and beer,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ll give a Blackjack talk.” (Hirschtick was a member of the famed MIT Blackjack team, which excelled at card counting and inspired the movie “21.”) A few bottles of beer in the company fridge don’t bother him, nor does a company holiday party with a barkeep dispensing gin and tonics. His problem is with alcohol that is available for free, all day, every day in a workplace.
“Everyone has underage interns and, in some cases, underage employees in the building,” he says. “And for folks who have a drinking problem — about one out of 15 people — I can’t imagine how stressful it is and how inconsiderate it is to deal with those kegs all day long.”
Onshape has 100 employees and has raised nearly $170 million in venture capital funding.
Jules Pieri, chief executive of The Grommet, says she is aware of tech companies with all-male leadership teams where all potential hires “are invited to their Friday afternoon parties for a final, mutual vetting.” That kind of environment, with alcohol present, Pieri says, “would be off-putting to many women, to be surrounded by a crowd of drinking guys as a test of suitability. And I wonder about anyone who just does not drink.”
The Grommet, which sells unique products from independent producers, has its own cocktail culture: Wine Wednesdays once a month, and beer from an in-house keg most Fridays. But Pieri says she also tries to create lunchtime social events and other gatherings that don’t involve alcohol.
“I have experienced a handful of issues related to freely available booze over the course of the last five years,” says Chris Palombo, a Rhode Island resident who has worked as a sales executive for several tech startups. “Unfortunately, one led to a termination.” But, Palombo adds, the problem was “more reflective of the character of the employee, versus access to alcohol.”
A few companies and entrepreneurship initiatives in Boston have recently been modifying their policies around adult beverages in the workplace. At Jibo, a robotics startup in Boston, chief executive Steve Chambers says he decided to create a clear wrapup time for the company’s “Fridays at Five” weekly confab. Some of the younger employees, he noticed, were staying late into the evening, and he was concerned about liability and “enabling.”
The Techstars Boston entrepreneurship program, which helps company founders perfect their ideas and find investors, is changing what had been an “open bar” vibe at its office schmooze fests, which often attract outsiders from the startup community. Techstars plans to start using drink tickets to limit consumption and bringing in bartenders to supervise, managing director Clement Cazalot said. He says there haven’t been specific incidents in Boston that he’s aware of.
Earlier this month, Marc Benioff, the chief executive of software giant Salesforce, published a blog post reminding his 25,000 employees — approximately 1,000 of whom are based in Boston — that the company has a no alcohol policy in all its offices. Serving booze on the premises, Benioff wrote, is “unfair” to employees “who either do not want it or are intolerant of it.”
I’m not as draconian about drinking at work as Benioff is. But I think the best startups should be able to build a free-wheeling, fun culture without using free-flowing alcohol as a crutch.
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