News & Events

Alcohol at Work: Has Time Been Called on Gin O’Clock?

April 22, 2023

What are your guidelines on booze at work? Are your staff weekend warriors or tea-total? With alcohol consumption among Gen-Z staff falling, and with only 2 in 10 staff classed as “sober” what should your alcohol policy be?

After a surge in lock-down drinking, more people are choosing alcohol-free. However, all year round we advise on situations where alcohol has contributed to misconduct at work. It isn’t limited to the festive office party and might include the summer BBQ or staff entertainment. How do your usually moderate drinkers respond to alcohol when their private lives hit a problem?

In the case of McElroy v Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust, the employment tribunal had to decide whether dismissal of an employee who arrived at work smelling of alcohol was a fair or not.

When considering fairness, the size and resources of the employer are taken into account. The employer must genuinely believe the employee has committed misconduct and carried out a reasonable investigation before moving to a disciplinary.

Mr McElroy had been dismissed for gross misconduct. He denied being drunk and said the smell was aftershave, garlic or hand-gel. He had a good record but did not attend an occupational health meeting when asked. Based on reports from colleagues, Mr McElroy was dismissed.

The judge decided Mr McElroy’s dismissal was unfair. There was no evidence of him not functioning effectively at work whereas the employer’s policy gave an example of gross misconduct as being unfit for work through alcohol.

Although not an issue in the McElroy case, employers should remember diet and alcohol can be relevant as can discrimination issues including disabilities, religion or belief as well as age. Non-alcoholic drinks options should always be available at work related social events. Similarly, only offering alcohol related incentives is likely to be problematic. However, requiring an individual to stack alcohol on shelves as part of their role is unlikely to be considered discriminatory.

McElroy’s case underlines the importance of clear policies clearly matching the employer’s expectation on staff. Mr McElroy’s behaviour had not been adversely impacted by any alcohol consumption so wasn’t actually contrary to the policy. What should your policy say? Should you have sober supervisors at your next work event? Do you hold events where drinking isn’t the central activity? ACAS and CIPD have produced helpful guidance on the topic.

Employers should ensure if a sanction is given, it is reasonable and appropriate. Employers and managers should also be alert to correct procedures and if a disciplinary sanction is given it is at the right level for the behaviour. Alcohol misuse can surface when lateness, absence or performance issues arise. It is not always a question of conduct or safety and the workplace context may be important.

And, because getting kicks isn’t always about alcohol, it could involve other substances or pills, contact us for further advice on substance misuse at work, getting policies and processes right or handling tricky disciplinary matters.

Contact an expert