EntertainHR: Leah’s Lawsuit: “Sober Curiosity” and its Impact on Workplace Culture

Whether you’ve noticed it through the media or in your own circle of friends, it’s no secret that the consumption of alcohol has been losing its popularity, and the idea of being sober or “sober curious” is trendy. Of course, by all accounts, this trend is actually a healthy one, and one that should be supported. However, since alcohol is such a deep rooted social activity, it can be hard for some people to understand why someone may choose not to partake in it. Nevertheless, it is important for employers to recognize this new wave of sobriety and approach it in an appropriate and accepting way. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it can also help them avoid potential litigation.

photo credit: Bravo

Recently, on February 27, 2024, Leah McSweeney, a former star of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City,” filed a lawsuit against parties including the Bravo cable channel; its parent company, NBCUniversal; and Andy Cohen, the executive producer of the “Real Housewives” franchise. She alleges that she was thrust into a “rotted workplace culture” that “discriminated against, tormented, demoralized, demeaned, harassed and retaliated against [her] because she is a woman with disabilities, such as alcohol use disorder and various mental health disorders, all in the name of selling drama.” If you’re unfamiliar with the 12th and 13th seasons of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” McSweeney joined the cast in her first season around the time she had relapsed after nine years of sobriety, which was part of her storyline. She alleges in her lawsuit that producers on the show would encourage her outright to drink and “engag[e] in guerilla-type psychological warfare intended to pressurize [her] into a psychological break and cause Ms. McSweeney to relapse.” McSweeney makes it clear that she felt “[e]very single thing that was said to [her] was coded language for, ‘You better drink.’”

Of course, not every workplace is the set of a reality television show, where drama (fueled by alcohol or not) is literally what attracts viewers. And of course, you don’t need to be in recovery to make the choice to stop drinking alcohol. However, there is a lot to learn from McSweeney’s lawsuit in the employment context.

First, there should never be pressure from an employer for an employee to consume alcohol. In the same token, if an employee makes it known that he or she chooses not to drink, the conversation should really stop there; there shouldn’t be follow-up questions to selfishly figure out the employee’s reasons for not drinking.

Second, realistically, bars can only be so fun if you’re choosing not to drink. With this new wave of younger professionals abstaining from alcohol, it would be in employers’ best interests to branch out from the after-work happy hours to mix in activities that aren’t centered around alcohol.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that “alcohol” is not a dirty word or an activity that should be banished altogether. It is important, though, to always be mindful of your audience and the impact that your words can have. “Just one drink” may be a phrase that’s meant in good fun, but to some, it can be really triggering, or honestly, annoying.

McSweeney’s lawsuit has really shaken up the Bravo universe, and it will be interesting to see the kind of precedent it sets for the entertainment industry. Likewise, Millennials and Gen Z have shaken up the norms of the workplace, and sobriety is just one example. Fortunately, this is a healthy and positive trend that is likely here to stay, so it’s in employers’ best interests to get with the times.  

Hannah Yoder is a senior associate at FordHarrison.

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