Your boss: Helpful mentor or nagging nanny?

Wednesday - 5/16/2012, 2:00am EDT

If the boss told you to lay off the sauce during the workday, would you do it?

Not even a lite beer for lunch. Could you handle that? Would you comply? Or would you chew gum and use a mouthwash to mask your sin?

Take it one step further. What if your glorious leader said that you shouldn't drink after hours either? Maybe your job is law enforcement, or you are the CIA technician who bugged the Kremlin men's room. What if the boss said you should never drink, and especially if you are attending a conference sponsored by the government, or you are representing Uncle Sam at a function. No alcohol.

What if the chief said that even after all business is done and the conference has closed, you should stick to sasparilla at the end-of-the-affair event.

What right does the government — as your employer — have to tell you to modify your social life?

Since the GSA/Secret Service events, we've talked with several feds, in three agencies, who say they have been urged not to imbibe while on official business, or when they are representing the government at a function. "It is not in writing," one worker said, "but they made it clear we should avoid alcohol."

I've worked at one place where there was a no-alcohol policy at work, or at company functions. Period. It was written policy and a firing offense. Many if not most of the workers, I suspect, enjoyed a good belt or two, or three or five. But not at work. It was a condition of employment.

I have worked at three places where politics was a no-no. We weren't supposed to give — time, money or love — to candidates. Nor could we publicly support a partisan candidate or cause, and political bumper stickers on personal (not to mention company) cars were out! That got a bit dicey at times, as some of the spouses revolted (in some cases they were revolting). But the executive editor set the tone by refusing to register to vote.

So it is not unknown for workplaces to ban certain things. But what about Uncle Sam? Where is the line between kindly, helpful, wise Uncle Ed and a nagging nanny state begin? Monday's column dealt with the sometimes tricky issue of how bossy can the boss be? It prompted some interesting comments:

  • I have been a federal employee for 40 years. I am sorry to disappoint my fellow feds, but we are and should be held to a higher standard.

    The examples are endless.

    There is a higher standard when we deal with the public, i.e., everyone who is not in our office. I have been yelled at and treated rudely. I have dealt with drug addicts and child molesters. I have never doubted that I owed these people respectful treatment.

    I have represented the government in litigation and supervised people doing this. Opposing counsel too often have not exhibited the highest standards of professionalism. This in no way would ever make it acceptable for government attorneys to display less than high standards of professionalism.

    People traveling on corporate money may spend money and time however the corporation deems appropriate. We are spending taxpayer money, and we owe the taxpayers a duty to spend their tax money reasonably and responsibly.

    If this is viewed as old fashioned, it shouldn't be. After 40 years, my opinions are not likely to change." — Larry at Social Security

  • I found your column (about Demon Rum) this morning to be quite interesting, even though it was not what I was expecting. I was expecting you to talk about the rum subsidies that are being debated (and argued about) between the two non-states of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. But of course, you focus on the feds, so it makes sense.

    I have to say, having never been a federal worker, if my boss were to tell me that I could not drink on my own time, and my own nickle, I would be quickly looking for another job. I realize the issue of "image," but frankly, it is not GSA or OPM's place to tell its employees what they cannot do offhours, if the activity is legal. I think we can agree that a Secret Service agent on forward duty is never really "off duty" but a fed at a conference ... that is a bit of a stretch.