Legal

The legal ramifications of staff feeling obliged to drink at work

10 Feb 2020 By Alison Downie

What can employers do to prevent workplace peer pressure to consume alcohol? asks Alison Downie

Drinks company Pernod Ricard hit the press recently for highly unusual allegations – and a court case. Not only were staff free to drink alcohol at all times of the working day, but they were allegedly put under significant and unacceptable pressure to do so. This happened at work-related outings, but also throughout the day when working. There was unsurprisingly particular pressure to consume the company’s own product, an aperitif that is highly intoxicating even in small amounts.

Press reports cited the court case now brought by one employee, in which accusations were made of a culture of pressure to drink the firm’s products to increase sales to customers – to such an extent it resulted in employees suffering serious ill-health. Despite official denials and reference to the company's official zero-tolerance approach, many more employees gave similar reports. They mention a culture in which the company and senior managers enthusiastically encouraged drinking.

Some rather shocking examples were given by employees in the court case and also in previous exposés of the culture. For example, staff being strong-armed into drinking so much at work and functions (including at bars, nightclubs and, bizarrely, bullfights) it led to addiction, poor health and, in one case, hallucinations. One woman was told she’d be dead in three years if she continued to comply with this pressure to drink.

This is a rather extreme example, and insurance and banking companies are now reigning in excessive drinking. But this case highlights one particular aspect of alcohol consumption at work and work-related events that is not usually specifically mentioned in alcohol at work policies: the pressure sometimes exerted on employees to drink alcohol when they don't wish to, and to drink excessively at social events such as Christmas parties, say.

Any such pressure to conform can cause significant stress (not to mention potentially unwilling intoxication) because of employees’ fear of disapproval and of losing work opportunities or promotions – or even their job. Importantly, it may also be deeply offensive to those whose religion proscribes consumption of alcohol. This is not often mentioned in discussions on consumption at work, but it is not unknown for employees with such beliefs to make excuses not to attend such events or to leave early, without making their real reasons known. This is not good for those employees, but it’s also no good for team-building efforts, or the company. Quite apart from religious views, many employees don’t want to drink much, or any, alcohol, perhaps as part of a more healthy approach to diet.

Staff policies in relation to alcohol at work should be reviewed urgently in relation to this aspect especially. Consider including: 

  • an outline of the problem of peer pressure to drink alcohol and where it can occur; 
  • a clear statement that pressure exerted on colleagues to drink alcohol where clearly unwanted, or to excess, is not permitted and could be offensive;
  • a warning this could amount to misconduct or gross misconduct and could result in disciplinary proceedings;
  • a reporting system (confidential possibly) to named individuals for those affected by such pressure;
  • an explanation of the meaningful support that will be offered to those experiencing  such pressure;
  • reference to training for managers and selected employees to deal with such situations at work events or during working hours; and
  • if you’ve not done so already, start to develop an all-encompassing wellbeing at work policy, which can include this aspect.

To ensure staff know what is and isn’t allowed, HR should create a clear policy that lays down the ground rules when it comes to drinking on the job and underlines the support that will be given to employees who do not want to drink. It should include the ramifications of abusing a policy of this sort too.

Alison Downie is a partner in the employment team at Goodman Derrick 

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