Fired up on alcohol
Zero tolerance of excessive use of alcohol appears to be spreading up the chain of command. But who can report the bosses' drinking problems?
By Heikki Hellman
Zero tolerance on alcohol is spreading in the workplace.
In the Hospital District of South Ostrobothnia, you will get your marching orders on the spot, if the alcometer needle so much as twitches.
But the tougher attitudes towards a traditional problem in Finnish working life appear to be extending right the way up the chain of command to the big office on the top floor.
The Finnish Broadcasting Company’s evening news bulletin just over a week ago carried a report that six researchers at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs had filed a complaint against the Institute’s director Raimo Väyrynen.
The fact that the complaint referred to Väyrynen’s allegedly having appeared drunk was revealed by the Chairman of the Institute’s Board, Antti Tanskanen.
Naturally the drinking problems of the country’s good and great are of interest, but previously these things have not been aired in public.
And certainly no employer has come out and reported publicly on the alcohol use of his or her employees!
But Tanskanen’s was not the first recent example.
In February we learned that the newly-appointed editor-in-chief of the Turku daily Turun Sanomat, Markku Salomaa, was being fired from his job.
“I guess it was about alcohol, in other words he had been in Brussels and had lapsed badly”, the newspaper publisher’s CEO Keijo Ketonen told Helsingin Sanomat at the time.
Then there was the case of the Helsinki HIFK ice hockey team, who sacked their Canadian coach Bob Francis in December 2006.
The HIFK-Hockey general manager of the time Pentti Matikainen revealed that the decision was alcohol-related.
“Francis has repeatedly... used alcohol during team training sessions and at away fixtures on the road”, said Matikainen.
In the old days, when presidents and ministers, professors and captains of industry let their hair down or got legless, not a word of it was whispered to the public at large.
One’s private life was no business but one’s own, and nobody even tut-tutted at the idea of having to swill down vodka while representing country or company.
Getting wasted on the job was a fringe benefit.
Ahti Karjalainen was permitted to continue his heavy drinking for decades.
In his case, it went on for so long that when the former Prime Minister and long-serving Foreign Minister was sacked from his position as the Governor of the Bank of Finland in 1983, a good many people did at least already know that alcoholism had lubricated his departure.
Now, however, times have changed. The squeaky-clean behaviour of politicians, civil servants, and company directors is being monitored with a magnifying glass.
Each and every little slip has the risk of coming out in public, since tips to newsdesks and candid camera-phone snaps can be passed on with a few keystrokes and a mouse-click.
“It seems as though tolerance has declined”, ponders Pekka Hyvärinen, who was appointed head of the self-regulating Council for Mass Media earlier this year.
Hyvärinen nevertheless notes that he does not know whether there is any substance in the accusations against Väyrynen or Salomaa.
“What is certainly odd in both cases is the fact that the employer brought the alcohol suspicions right out into the open like that. It is almost as if at the top of the tree there would be no need to go through the usual arrangements of getting someone straight, or putting them into a rehab programme”, says Hyvärinen.
“I did not see any reason to hide the matter, because the complaints will in any case come as an appendix to the formal protocol on the subject”, said Antti Tanskanen by way of justification for his disclosure.
The media, of course, also have the right to make it known if someone in a significant position is drinking heavily.
The recent cases have also given pause for thought for Seppo Koskinen, a professor of labour and social welfare law at the University of Lapland.
“An individual’s use of alcohol is the sort of sensitive personal information that should not be made public, according to the law”, he suggests.
For example alcoholism is a sickness, and the information surrounding it should be kept within a select group of people, even in the work environment.
What sets the Salomaa and Väyrynen cases apart is that the former was working for a newspaper publisher, while the latter is a civil servant.
“If a civil servant in a senior position is drinking heavily in private, let alone if he is appearing drunk in public, then it is always going to be a more blameworthy action. Civil servants are expected to display proper discipline in these things”, says Koskinen.
Difficult subjects, to be sure. Both Salomaa and Väyrynen have vehemently denied the allegations made against them about their alcohol problems.
The matter of the firing and outstanding salary claims of HIFK ex-coach Bob Francis will be heard in Helsinki District Court later this month.
Lawyers are apparently poring over the Salomaa case right now.
Väyrynen’s alleged behaviour will be discussed at a meeting of the Board of the Institute of International Affairs on Tuesday. Everything points to the fact that this was not simply a matter of drink, but that it was one of the symptoms of the inflamed working atmosphere that exists in the Institute at present.
In any event, nobody is likely to be suggesting on Tuesday that the answer to the Institute’s problems should be a “wet” retreat weekend in which to iron things out.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.4.2008
HEIKKI HELLMAN / Helsingin Sanomat