my boss drinks and expects me to drive with him — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work for a tiny company — the two owners/managers are a married couple and then there’s me and one other employee who are admin.

About once every six weeks, the owners take us out for a fancy lunch downtown. This is considered a perk and a treat but it is definitely compulsory. At the lunch everybody else drinks, not to excess, but definitely two or three glasses of wine each. I don’t drink, but I don’t care if others do. The problem is that our male boss drives us in his car to these lunches and then expects to drive us back to the office afterwards.

I am deeply uncomfortable with this. I’m pretty sure that he’s over the legal limit to drive after most of these lunches. I do not want to get in the car with a drunk driver. The other admin guy agrees that it isn’t ideal but goes along with it because “it’ll probably be fine.”

I am very junior and don’t know how to address this with my bosses. They consider themselves gastronomes and wine aficionados, and I don’t think my boss will take kindly to me insinuating that he isn’t fit to drive.

My only other option for getting back to the office after a lunch is public transit, which would take about twice as long as driving, which would obviously cut into my work time. Or I could take a cab but I don’t earn enough to want to pay for that myself. How do I handle this situation? Apart from this it’s a good job and an entry-level position into an industry I really care about and want to progress in. I’m willing to pay my dues for the experience and to have it on my resume but I don’t want to risk my personal safety.

Yeah, if you think he’s over the legal limit or just under the influence generally, don’t get in that car.

There are a few ways you could handle this.

One is that you could frame this as about you rather than about him — something like, “I’m really, really cautious about this after reading too many horror stories about people who seemed fine to drive but weren’t. I’m sorry, but I have a hard personal rule that I won’t drive with anyone who’s had more than a glass to drink.” So you’re not saying, “You are clearly irresponsible,” but rather, “I just have a personal rule on this.” And then you could say, “Would it be possible for us all to take a cab to these? Or since I don’t drink, I’d be happy to be the driver if you’d be comfortable with me driving your car.”

If he blows off your concerns, you could say, “I really feel strongly about this, and like I said, it’s a personal rule I have. I can take public transit back if that’s the only option — that means I won’t be back at work as quickly, though.”

It’s possible he’s going to think you’re overreacting and/or being too rigid. If so, so be it — we’re talking about safety. But that’s the sort of thing that can then affect you at work — for example, if he feels less comfortable with you, are you going to get less mentoring, less benefit of the doubt, etc.? But you can usually counteract that by making a point of being really warm in other ways. Unless he has huge defensiveness issues about his drinking, that will probably take care of it.

A second option is that you could push your coworker to take more of a stand with you. Point out to him that “it’ll probably be fine” is not a great stance to take with your personal safety — and you should point out that you’re talking about the personal safety of other people on the road too, and it’s not okay to be cavalier about that. Tell him that if you the two of you speak up together, it’s going to be easier than if it’s only one of you. And I think it’s fine to use a little guilt in this situation too and to say, “This is really important to me, and I really need you backing me up on this.” If he agrees, then ahead of the next lunch, you can approach your bosses and say, “Cecil and I were talking and we’re both concerned about any of us driving after we have drinks at these lunches. Can we either all head over in a cab or have someone drive who’s not going to drink?”

A third option might be to talk to the other owner. This is tricky since you’ll be talking about her husband, but if she’s a generally reasonable person, you could try, “Hey, we feel awkward about saying this to Bob directly, but we’d feel a lot more comfortable if we had a ride back with someone who hadn’t been drinking.”

Of these three, the first option might be the best. If nothing else, it’s the only one that doesn’t rely on convincing someone else to agree with you, and it’s fully within your control.

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