By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D.
Letting off steam is part of the culture in my high-pressure industry. But one colleague—a great guy, well-liked—drinks so much at our after-work get-togethers that we've all become uncomfortable. He doesn't get obnoxious, just really drunk. I'm worried and would like to say something. But I don't know if I'm being prudish and I don't want to single myself out from the group. — Anonymous, New York
You're not being prudish. There's no holier-than-thou attitude in your account of things. So assuming that you won't take a moralistic stance with this colleague, I think you'd be doing him a favor by talking to him.
People need to relax after a high-pressure day, but getting drunk the way your colleague does is maladaptive, even in the most macho of industry cultures. That other co-workers also feel uncomfortable suggests that his drinking has gone beyond the cultural norm.
It's a serious problem, but there are solutions. So if you and your colleague have a history of openness, you should take him aside and express your concerns privately. (Don't do this at the bar; you want to elicit a thoughtful response, not anger or extreme embarrassment.) Try saying something like, "I may be overstepping my bounds, but I'm really concerned about what happens to you when we all go out drinking." Acknowledge that you're not an expert but that you're worried he may have an alcohol problem. Suggest that he might want to ask his doctor to refer him to someone who knows about these things. I admire your desire to help: It takes courage to express these kind of worries, especially when you fear it might alienate you from your peers. My guess: If they find out you've had this talk, your co-workers will be secretly relieved.
A senior person at my company abuses people verbally, picking particularly on one junior employee who has asked me for advice on how to handle it. Human resources is aware of the problem and is supposedly counseling the offender, but the behavior hasn't stopped. What can be done? — Anonymous, New York
It's hard to know why this dynamic sometimes takes hold. But verbal abuse is never justified, and as long as it continues, the junior person should keep HR informed and not worry about being a pest.
Some companies bring in a coach to counsel such a manager. But that process takes time. Bringing the two people together to work things out "therapy-style" can also help, but only if the session is facilitated by a skilled professional. If that feels unsafe to your co-worker, he or she should graciously decline. Meanwhile, it's the company's job to protect the more vulnerable employee—by threatening the senior person with dismissal or shifting the junior one to another position.
Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.