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Battling the bottle: drinking and the workplace

23 July 2006

Heavy drinkers can cause serious difficulties for their employers and the problem is widespread. It’s not just a matter of someone having one too many at the firm’s Christmas party – we get at least three or four enquiries a month from employers wanting advice on dismissing problem drinkers.

The vast majority of complaints are about heavy or regular drinking which is usually felt to be affecting the individual’s role and sometimes also having an adverse effect on the firm’s image or success. So what are the legal issues for employers?

The first rule is don’t make assumptions. It is important to establish that the problem really is drink-related. In practical terms it’s not easy to show with objective certainty that someone has been drinking.

Bear in mind also that there are many medical conditions that can account for symptoms such as lack of concentration, physical co-ordination or mood swings. Unless there is strong evidence of intoxication, an employer should be extremely cautious. Dismissing someone on the basis that they turned up for work slightly the worse for wear would be legally very unsafe and could easily lead to a claim of unfair dismissal with the potential for hefty awards.

The clearest-cut type of case would be an employee who turned up blind drunk and obviously unfit for work, for example unable to operate machinery or drive a vehicle. This would almost certainly amount to gross misconduct and an employer would be reasonably safe to dismiss on the spot.

Where situations are not so clear-cut, employers need to take a much more patient approach. Many make the mistake of presenting the problem in generalised terms, for example telling the employee that he or she “smells of drink after lunch”, “comes to work with a hangover” or is “irritable”.

For disciplinary or legal purposes, complaints need to be far more specific than this. Employers need to produce objective evidence of specific adverse effects resulting directly from the person’s drinking.

On an immediate and practical level it is sensible to ensure that contracts of employment clearly state that drinking during working hours amounts to misconduct. This gives the employer scope to give a warning to an employee whose drinking is causing concern. Such an interview needs to be handled with great care.

The following guidelines may be helpful:

  • Find the right time and place to interview the individual without seeming judgmental.
  • Avoid trying to have a reasoned conversation about the role of alcohol when someone is drunk or has a cracking hangover.
  • Before preparing to discuss a colleague’s drinking, make certain that you have evidence that the habit is causing problems at work. The evidence must be available and indisputable.
  • A manager should be consistent and avoid accusations or any hint of nagging. The discussion should be factual and detached and should include an outline of the action the firm takes when dealing with unacceptable drinking. It should be made plain that this is a company rule and not an idle threat.

As always, if you need commercial and pragmatic legal advice, we’re here to help so please get in touch.

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Jenny Hawrot LLB (Hons)
Senior associate, solicitor
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Jenny Hawrot
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