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Alcohol at work – Does it really matter? By Sarah Fletcher

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A drunk employee that slurs, brawls and falls off their chair is an obvious business liability, but is the odd drink at lunch really as serious as recent reports suggest? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates between eight and 14 million working days are lost each year as a result of alcohol impaired performance, but how much harm do a few lunchtime pints really do? Sarah Fletcher asked HR Zone members for their views.


As the workforce is crucial to an organisation’s operational success, alcohol can cause major problems for business. Given it impairs performance, relationships and worsens rates of absenteeism – between 20 and 25 per cent of workplace accidents are related to alcohol and two million Britons took a day off work during the past six months to recover from a hangover – it’s surprising that only 21 per cent of employers have a strict policy in place to combat alcohol misuse by staff. Employers should have a firm stance on alcohol use during work hours and be clear on what happens if these rules are broken.

Managing alcohol policies
Although a small quantity of alcohol is unlikely to cause major operational problems, many employers express concern that all staff can be trusted to only drink moderately. As consultant Sue Beatt comments, it is difficult to identify just how much is too much – at what point does lunchtime drinking become a significant business liability?

The problems associated with monitoring and controlling employee alcohol use has led many companies to introduce a zero tolerance policy: “Unfortunately there are always [staff] who will abuse the privilege, so a policy of no alcohol during working hours takes away the problem,” she says.

“”If you want to start breath testing then you will need to make an amendment to your contracts accordingly – but be prepared for a morale drop and people leaving due to this. Many will see this (as I would) as an infringement of their civil liberties.”

Nik Kellingley, training consultant

Introducing and running an alcohol policy must be handled delicately to protect the employer’s relationship with staff – if workers feel they are being monitored even during breaks, morale and productivity can suffer, says consultant Mike Morrison. Training consultant Nik Kellingley warns HR to think carefully about introducing alcohol testing:

“If you want to start breath testing then you will need to make an amendment to your contracts accordingly – but be prepared for a morale drop and people leaving due to this. Many will see this (as I would) as an infringement of their civil liberties. But you don’t need to do this unless the industry you work in is safety critical (and if that was the case then you would already be doing it).”

Kellingley adds that an alcohol policy should be appropriate to the sector and workplace: “It’s largely down to the workplace culture,” he says. “I worked in the rail industry for a while, where it is a sackable offence to have any alcohol during working hours or be under its influence and that applies to administration assistants as much as track workers. But it was quite accepted in some of the smaller companies who supplied Network Rail to have a pint at lunch as long as you weren’t going anywhere near the track afterwards.

“I’ve worked in a sales environment where the lunchtime drink was usually two to three hours long and stretched to far more than a pint. The managing director used to take us all to the pub and put his card behind the bar. So if it’s not a problem to the guy who owns the business it’s probably not a problem for anyone else.”

However, beware discrimination claims if you condone alcohol use during work hours: “You have to remember that this could count as discrimination against non-drinking colleagues who don’t drink for cultural or religious purposes and in the end could cost the company far more than a few pints.”

Managing policy breaches
Employers have a duty of care (at common law and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974) to ensure so far as is practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees. Organisations permitting staff under the influence of alcohol to continue working may be in breach of this duty by putting the individual and other staff at risk.

“Employers have a duty of care (at common law and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974) to ensure so far as is practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees. Organisations permitting staff under the influence of alcohol to continue working may be in breach of this duty by putting the individual and other staff at risk.”

This legal requirement influences the way business deals with staff that breach the alcohol policy; but HR Zone members agree that the response required from HR depends upon the level of drunkenness and how often it occurs. “For me if an employee turns up smelling like a brewery then they are no longer in “swift pint” territory and are in “sloshed and incapable” territory and their behaviour should be dealt with by the company capability procedure if a quiet word in their ear doesn’t do the trick,” says Kellingley.

Many employers advise the company to send the drunk employee home and instruct them not to return to work until sober. This removes the health and safety risk of workplace accidents and makes it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable during office hours. However, the reasons behind such behaviour should be addressed to prevent a spiralling alcohol problem:

“If someone breaks a policy banning alcohol at lunchtime, it is that individual’s line manager who should address the issue, with support in terms of guidance from the HR professional. Rarely will an individual drink at lunchtime for no purpose, it will usually be linked to another activity, social, business links, or even family issues. It’s up to the manager to address these with support from HR.”

Should HR have a policy to address serious alcohol problems?
In business terms, it is good practice to provide support for an employee with a serious alcohol problem, but this must be limited – if the situation doesn’t improve and puts other employees or the organisation at risk, the employer must take action to remove the worker.

Kellingley says: “HR should play their part in this procedure and should, for an ethical employer at least, offer support to the problem drinker but if the problem drinker refuses to acknowledge their issue it’s not HR’s problem to treat them like an invalid. Life and the capability procedure must go on.”

However, in cost terms it is better to help the employee to address a serious alcohol problem than to fire them. Mike Walker, managing director of Sankey Consulting Ltd, says that, given the business has probably spent two to three thousand pounds training the employee, the cost of recruitment and retraining another person would be an “unnecessary expense.”

Walker advises the business to lay out the procedures and risk of unemployment to the worker: “If it has an impact upon the quality of their work, then you could discipline on performance grounds; if its worse and has health and safety factors the manager has a responsibility for both his and the rest of the workforce’s safety – remove [the employee concerned} from the workforce and begin a counselling procedure, they should be given as much help as is reasonable, but let it be known in no uncertain circumstances that it might put their continued employment at risk.”

Alcohol abuse must be handled carefully to avoid legal complications. Be aware that a discrimination claim is possible under the disability discrimination act (DDA). Jonathan Gibbons, a lawyer specialising in disability discrimination, says: “Addiction is not a disability in itself so no adjustments are required. However some adverse health effects which can be caused by alcohol or drug abuse can lead to medical conditions which may constitute a condition under the DDA.”

Finally, Kellingley comments: “I think it’s a shame that the lunchtime pint is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – our continental European colleagues would say we are making a fuss about nothing, but almost no one in Europe would turn up wrecked after a four hour session in the Dog and Duck and expect to work machinery either.”

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