Alcohol in the workplace

What matters

What matters next

For a long time, socialising at work was synonymous with drinking alcohol, but in recent times we have seen this trend start to shift. This is positive news for employers who risk social events centred around alcohol inadvertently isolating those to choose not to drink. With minimal alternatives available in the past, some employees have felt a certain pressure to drink at events to ‘keep up’ with colleagues.

Culture and Inclusion

Drinking alcohol has always been associated with social events and has often been used to promote a collegiate atmosphere at work. Although a Friday drinks trolley might be a thing of the past, colleagues will often still go for a celebratory drink after work following completion of a big project (often funded by the company) or a bottle of bubbly will be offered as first prize in the Christmas raffle. 

When hosting social events, employers should consider the reasons behind an employee exercising their right not to drink and be supportive of these. It may be that they chose not to drink due to religious beliefs, health or disability reasons, pregnancy, being a designated driver or simply that they don’t want to. Some reasons may reflect protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and employers should be wary not to disadvantage those who choose to stay sober or else they may risk a claim for indirect discrimination. An easy fix is to ensure all events cater for non-drinkers and ensure alternative options are always available (and not just water) as well as making it clear to employees that derogatory comments or behaviours directed towards those individuals will not be tolerated. 

Legal Issues and Disciplinary

Complete inebriation at work events is clearly inappropriate, but this can be swiftly dealt with through a disciplinary process. The danger is the ‘grey area’ when an employee is drinking more than they should, but it is not quite clear if boundaries have been crossed, particularly where the alcohol is provided or paid for by the organisation.  

Some of the issues employers find most difficult surround how to manage drinking in the workplace. Without a clear policy in place, employees have no frame of reference or guidelines to outline what is acceptable (and what isn’t) when it comes to drinking. Employers will therefore have a hard time disciplining an employee if expectations were not made clear from the outset about what is and is not appropriate. Employers also need to be mindful of how much alcohol they make available and ensure that this is in line with any policy they put in place. An example is to only pay for one drink at a social event rather than having a free bar for the whole evening. 

Employers will also need to consider if continual alcohol abuse is a sign of deeper issues at play. Whilst still not acceptable to drink to excess at work, it may be that the employee needs additional support to overcome alcohol addiction or better tools to help manage underlying stress, for example. Some cases may therefore require a more supportive approach which includes a referral to Occupational Health before a disciplinary takes place. Employers should consider any softer approach carefully - if health and safety or regulatory issues are at stake, it may not be appropriate. 

Next steps

The starting point for employers surrounding alcohol in the workplace is a clear policy outlining the expectations and what is and is not acceptable regarding alcohol use so employees know when to draw the line. Consequences of drinking in the workplace (and any other non-compliance with the policy) should be highlighted to ensure employees are well aware of the repercussions of their actions. The employer should then ensure any work events are planned in a way that upholds that policy. 

The next step for employers is to consider inclusivity within the workplace to ensure no employee is disadvantaged for not drinking. There are a wealth of ideas which can be implemented to accommodate those that choose not to drink and some suggestions are outlined below.  

Practical tips for employers?

As mentioned above, employers need to be clear in their message when communicating with employees regarding alcohol to ensure there is no room for misinterpretation. We recommend employers consider the following suggestions which will not only help manage alcohol in the workplace, but can also help encourage a more inclusive culture:

  • Establish a clear, company-wide alcohol policy and ensure all employees know where to find it. This is particularly relevant if looking to rely upon this during disciplinary processes for alcohol misuse. 
  • Emphasise a zero-tolerance on peer pressure.
  • Ensure there are non-alcoholic options available at any social events.
  • Vary the times of events to involve those who may have responsibilities outside of work. For example, consider holding breakfast and lunchtime events as well as evening events to accommodate those that may have childcare responsibilities. 
  • Vary prizes for team events to ensure they are not always alcohol-related. Could a voucher be provided instead?

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

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