Alcohol at work functions

labour-guideBy Judith Griessel, Griessel Consulting

It is the time of year when many year-end functions typically take place and whether this is on- or off premises, it usually involves alcoholic refreshments.

To what extent should an employer who makes alcoholic beverages available to employees during a function, be responsible to try and mitigate the effects of alcohol consumption in order to safeguard employees and to avoid potential legal liability?

It is trite law that an employer can legally be held liable for damages caused by the actions of its employees if those actions took place within the course and scope of their employment. Apart from that, there is potential for reputational damage to the employer caused by intoxicated employees; or harm caused by such employees to themselves or others by driving under the influence of alcohol or when over the legal limit. Health and safety obligations and possible workplace injuries could also impact on the business.

Essentially, employers should be able to demonstrate that they have a least made an effort to try and manage employees’ conduct around alcohol consumption, or preventing them from driving when over the legal limit or in an intoxicated state.

Most employers generally have an alcohol policy in place, stipulating a “zero tolerance” approach to alcohol consumption in relation to their work or workplace. However, this policy is usually relaxed for the purposes of social work functions. It is therefore important for employers to stipulate in the policy what is expected of employees on such occasions. This could include:

  • Informing employees that behaviour at social work functions still requires a level of decorum suitable to a working environment and that it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that they consume alcohol with discretion (even if it’s free!).
  • Stating that the employer will not accept liability for harm or damages which may be caused by the employee as a result of his/her alcohol consumption, e.g. driving when over the legal limit; or conduct such as harassment of co-workers; etc.

The employer would be entitled to take disciplinary action against an employee for any conduct – on or off the premises – which impacts on the employment relationship. Where employees for example drive company vehicles as part of their job function and their licence is endorsed or suspended as a result of such offences, this will impact directly on the employer’s operations.

From a practical point of view, the employer could also take certain steps at work functions to assist employees in this regard, for example –

  • Make breathalysers available for employees to test whether they are within the legal limit before driving home;
  • Confiscate car keys and/or providing the details of a taxi service;
  • Limit the amount of alcohol that each employee may consume by issuing “drinks tickets”;
  • Ensure that sufficient food, non-alcoholic drinks and lots of water are available;
  • Issue instructions to the bar and/or servers to stop serving alcoholic drinks to employees who are becoming visibly intoxicated and/or unruly;
  • Do not allow any types of drinking games, high alcohol consumption prizes;
  • Let your employees clearly know the start and finish times;
  • Ensure that responsible managers clearly understand substance abuse and alcohol policies and that they know to step in should any situation get out of control.

Whilst year-end functions should be occasions to unwind and relax with colleagues outside of the normal working environment, caution cannot be thrown to the wind. Both employers and employees still have certain responsibilities around their conduct and are duty-bound to ensure that the company’s interests are not prejudiced in any way.

For more information please contact Judith at

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