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Esther Smith

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Ask the expert: Alcohol policy and religion


An employer would like to develop an alcohol policy that takes into account employees who cannot drink due to religious reasons. Esther Smith and Martin Brewer advise.

The question:

We have two scenarios :-
  1. A manager may invite their team out after work to celebrate a fundraising success.
  2. We may crack open a bottle of champagne in the HQ workplace (200 HQ-based employees) to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, for example. Obviously, consumption is monitored to reflect the legal limit.
We do not have an alcohol policy yet, but we would like to develop one. In particular, how do we address ensuring that employees (e.g. Muslims) who are unable to drink or touch alcohol, are not embarrassed or placed under undue pressure by being asked if they want a glass of alcohol? Similarly, if a manager takes staff off site to celebrate, and then pays the bill, would this constitute any kind of discrimination, because a Muslim (or someone unable to drink due to a disability) would not be able to take advantage of this ‘benefit’, whereas other people can just make a choice?

Legal advice:

Martin Brewer, partner, Mills & Reeve

I think you are confusing two separate things – an alcohol policy and the ‘social’ issue of the use of alcohol at staff events, celebrations etc.
An alcohol (and indeed drugs) policy is something all employers should consider having.  This will include such things as staff not being allowed to work under the influence of drugs (including, incidentally, legal drugs) or alcohol, setting out help for anyone with a problem but also the potential punishments for infringement of the policy. In health and safety critical environments you may want to consider the issue of testing.  This is not a particularly difficult issue.
The second issue is more subtle and difficult. Perhaps the first thing to say is that many people, for all sorts of reasons, do not drink alcohol. It is perfectly possible for such people to go to a pub for a celebration and drink soft drinks. There’s no less benefit to the employees who do not drink alcohol if their manager pays for everyone’s drinks whether alcoholic or not. Everyone is being treated the same way. 
The real issue here is two-fold. First, try to ensure that alcohol is not the centre of the celebration. The thing being celebrated is what is important and everyone should be allowed to participate whether with alcohol or otherwise. The second and more difficult issue arises where the culture of the business is such that anyone who, for example, doesn’t go for a beer after work on a Friday is seen as an outsider, where progression is about being part of the right crowd which involves a drinking culture, which inevitably does exclude those who don’t drink and may well be discriminatory. It is this more subtle social exclusion that you have to watch out for.

Martin Brewer can be contacted at . For further information, please visit Mills & Reeve.

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Esther Smith, partner, Thomas Eggar

There is no legal requirement to have an alcohol policy in place, but it is something worth considering, particularly if you have a culture whereby it is fairly common for alcohol to be consumed.
In terms of the specific possible issues you mention, the best thing to do is to make the policy very clear in stating that partaking in these types of activities is entirely the choice of the individual concerned, and clearly state that anyone exercising their choice not to be involved will not be treated any differently to those who do. There is sometimes a concern from employees that unless they join in and are viewed as ‘one of the boys’, if that is the culture of their manager, that their prospects will be somehow hampered. The policy you implement should clearly rebut this presumption.
I think that someone who chooses not to drink alcohol (whether for religious or health reasons) would struggle to argue that they have been deprived of a benefit when compared to other employees – there is nothing to stop people going with the others and enjoying a soft drink, as many people will choose to do if they have to drive afterwards, for example.

Esther Smith is a partner in Thomas Eggar’s Employment Law Unit. For further information, please visit Thomas Eggar.