Employer codes of conduct on drugs and alcohol

Beth Hale and Wonu Sanda explore whether employers should go as far as stipulating formal rules around drugs and alcohol in the workplace

The 333-year-old institution, Lloyds of London, has recently introduced a new code of conduct banning people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs from its premises on Lime Street. For an organisation which has long-housed an on-site bar (soon to be changed into a coffee shop), this change reportedly comes with its fair share of resistance, particularly as insurance is seen as one of the last industries where daily ‘boozy lunches’ are an expected part of the job, frequently in conjunction with networking and closing deals. Now returning to the Lloyds building after such a boozy lunch under the influence of drink or drugs could result in pass holders having their passes confiscated and possibly being barred. The policy applies to employees of Lloyds and visitors who work in the building.

The change follows a Bloomberg report which revealed pervasive experiences of sexual harassment and sexism in the insurance industry, said to be partially fuelled by a drinking culture. Alcohol and drugs can affect employee performance, judgement and decision-making and pose health and safety risks in the workplace (including making the occurrence of sexual harassment more likely). For many, therefore, the ban is a welcome and overdue change to bring Lloyds into step with other employers, where coming into work impaired by drink or drugs is likely to be considered a serious misconduct or capability issue. 

Why have a code of conduct?

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, attitudes are changing towards previously tolerated behaviours like inappropriate ‘banter’ or name-calling (for example, women at Lloyds reportedly being called ‘totty’). As a result, many organisations like Lloyds are taking the opportunity to introduce or update their codes of conduct to ensure that everyone understands the basic ground rules. While it is impossible to have an exhaustive list of unacceptable behaviour set out in a code of conduct, having a code in place is a useful and necessary tool to help set appropriate standards and the culture within a workplace. These expectations may also be set out in a disciplinary policy, which should also make it clear that certain acts may result in disciplinary action being taken, and potentially dismissal. 

However, just having a code or policy is not sufficient to bring about real cultural and behavioural change. It is equally important that employers regularly review their policies and procedures, as well as promote awareness of them. Employees and management should be trained on the policies and how to report and respond to incidents of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Indeed, Lloyds has also announced a confidential reporting line as another way to address the problems of workplace sexual harassment and create a “safe and inclusive working environment”. If inappropriate behaviour is reported, employers should ensure that they carry out a robust and fair investigation process and take appropriate action against the accused employee if allegations are held to be well-founded.  

However, when it comes to misconduct caused by alcohol and drugs in particular, employers need to be mindful that they may be dealing with an employee suffering from ongoing drug or alcohol dependency. They may therefore need to involve occupational health professionals during any investigation and disciplinary process, gather medical evidence and provide support to the employee to get treatment if necessary. While addiction itself is not a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, there may be underlying conditions such as depression or anxiety which could constitute a disability, so employers should tread carefully. 

Employers may also wish to consider implementing specific drug and alcohol policies which could include drug and alcohol testing for staff with particular responsibilities like driving or operating machinery, where being impaired by drink or drugs could cause injury to themselves or others. Whatever action is taken, it is clear that in the post-#MeToo era, all employers need to be proactive about addressing outdated attitudes and practices in the workplace.  

Beth Hale is a partner and general counsel, and Wonu Sanda an associate and solicitor-advocate, both at CM Murray LLP