Pitfalls if Your Company Culture Allows Booze at Work

December 10, 2015

Topics: Values, Culture and Employment Law

You may have seen companies that have alcohol in the break room.  Alcohol is served in the office to clients.  One law firm had wine and cheese on Friday afternoons.  It’s not unusual to have alcohol at holiday parties and other celebrations.  Companies can feel that this gives them a laid-back, collegial culture.  Sounds great, right? But what legal issues can arise when your culture encourages drinking at work?

Generally, you would not want your employees transacting company business under the influence of any substance.  Traditional drug and alcohol free workplace policies cover that situation, but will need to be changed to include, for example, a “drink responsibly” provision if you are going to allow employees to drink at work.  This policy also needs to expressly state that drinking is voluntary and those who choose not to drink are not to be harassed or retaliated against or otherwise treated inappropriately for their failure to participate.

There are many reasons why an employee would not want to drink at work—and they may not want their supervisors and/or co-workers to be aware of that underlying issue.  Employees should not be put into positions at work where they may need to disclose their membership in a protected class when such is completely unrelated to their ability to do their jobs.  For that reason, employers who choose to have alcohol at work would be prudent to provide alternative beverage selections, as well as foster a culture that permits employees to decline without comment and without being questioned or snubbed.

What if one of your employees is an alcoholic and didn’t expect to have to deal with alcohol at work? Perhaps alcoholism runs in their family and they aren’t taking any chances.  Or the employee is on certain medication where they are not supposed to drink?  They might not want anyone to know they have an underlying condition that requires the medication.  What if another’s religion prohibits drinking alcohol?  The company needs to make sure that it creates a culture of inclusion that does not encourage pressuring everyone to drink nor make people feel less or left out if they don’t.

Your policies need to clearly state that no one should feel that they are required to drink if they don’t want to – and you need to create a reporting line for those who feel mistreated or retaliated against for not joining the party.  A similar line should be created for those who need assistance getting home—because they weren’t quite as responsible as they should be.

A company could have other types of discrimination growing out of someone’s failure to drink.  For example, what if an employee doesn’t drink and gives no reason – but the co-worker thinks she’s not drinking because she’s Muslim.  The co-worker then makes disparaging remarks about Muslims to the employee – but she’s not Muslim; she’s unexpectedly pregnant, unmarried, and uncertain as to what she’s going to do, and she doesn’t want anyone to know yet.  A true HR nightmare in the making.

Bottom line is that if you want to implement a culture that includes the use of alcoholic beverages at work, you need to be sure that all these issues are covered to protect your company.