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Alcohol and the workplace

Alcohol at social work events may be legal, but there is increasing recognition of the dangers of alcohol consumption at work or at work-related social functions.

Research by Ass Prof Ian Mcandrew, Dr Fiona Edgar and Dr Trudy Sullivan has highlighted the extent of improper behaviour at work-related social events, including aggression and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

They compiled information from both employers and employees about policies and prevalent attitudes towards alcohol consumption at social events in workplaces. They surveyed 218 employers and 813 employees.

Almost three quarters of work social functions, both on site and off site, had alcohol available, mostly wholly or partially paid for by the employer.

Most reported having experienced no significant problems from the availability of alcohol at work functions.

However, 20 percent of our employee respondents had seen trouble, when staff over-indulged at work events, while 25 per cent of employer respondents also reported having had to deal with inappropriate behaviour at work social occasions.

Respondents were also asked to share relevant workplace stories, with 187 employees providing valuable insight into the role played by alcohol at contemporary workplace social occasions. The researchers categorised the regrettable and sometimes troubling behaviours and the consequences, building a catalogue of real-life incidents. This has provided a unique resource.

At the lower end of the scale, they noted embarrassing and often annoying behaviour that risked damaging an employee’s reputation. Sometimes that foolishness also had the potential for harm – such as doing wheelies around the works yard, pushing someone into a swimming pool, or passing out in the bathroom.

Sometimes general drunken rowdiness degenerated into the more offensive, including unacceptable language, breaking things, vomiting, or smoking in non-smoking facilities. It sometimes meant driving home drunk.

The two most damaging kinds of behaviours that surface at works functions, often putting employment at risk, were aggression and sexual behaviour or harassment. In most assault and verbal abuse cases, there appeared to be a history that comes to the surface at the works function under the influence of too much alcohol.

The study documented serious and often disastrous examples of people losing their jobs, personal grievance cases, mediation, adjudication at the Employment Relations Authority or even going through the Employment Court. It has damaged careers and relationships.

Lessons learnt

For employees, the message is clear - know and keep to your limits.

Employers must understand their obligations - employers who provide or permit alcohol at work functions could be held liable if employees or others are harmed as a result. Employer’s policies in relation to alcohol should be audited.

  • Misconduct occurring at work sponsored social functions, whether on or off premises, will almost always be within the jurisdiction of the employer much like any other misconduct at work.
  • Under occupational health and safety laws, employers must also take all practicable steps to provide employees with a safe workplace, and that obligation extends to workplace-related social functions and occasions.

Employers should establish good drinking norms and stick to restrictions or limits on alcohol availability and consumption. They also need to issue a reminder to their workforce that they are attending a work event and the usual standards of workplace behaviour apply.

They need to adopt “good host” practices, including having a safe host and providing food and transport.

And although not legally obliged to do so, employers could also lead by example.

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