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Drinking On The Job

Arlene Vernon

Arlene VernonSome of the stories I encounter are so “weird,” they must appear untrue. But we know that truth is stranger than fiction and employees bring that strangeness to us on a regular basis.

So, I received an email from a client. It appears that she has an employee who decided to open and drink a can of beer while working at his desk.

Can you relate? Think about it. You’re busy working on a project at your computer. You’re deep in thought and all of sudden you start craving a tall cold drink. A soft drink just won’t do. You really just need a brew. Conveniently, you realize you have a beer at your desk! You decide to open it up and drink it. It’s so refreshing and one beer isn’t going to affect your work. So what the heck, why not enjoy the beer?

And that’s what he did – right in front of his coworkers, who immediately notified HR.

Our next question is what did the HR manager do? But you already know the answer – the employee was immediately terminated. The company has a zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs and this employee clearly, knowingly flaunted his violation of that policy.

Interestingly, I do have two clients who allow employees to occasionally drink while working in (although since one of them brews beer, they probably don’t count). But the vast majority of employers do not allow it.

I decided to Google the topic. I found a Wall Street Journal article More Offices Offer Workers Alcohol discussing companies who do allow drinking, although in their examples most drinking is done after hours when employees are working extended hours or to encourage team socialization, with in-office happy hours.  But this is still a rarity in the workplace.

The client’s email discussion continued within our HR Mastery Group focusing on (a) how they would have handled the situation and (b) how different companies’ alcohol and drug policies are worded to protect the organization.

For example, if you have a zero tolerance policy, but allow employees to drink at work-related social functions (in or out of the office), does this contradict the zero tolerance and make it void? Common sense says no. But what’s important is that you are consistent in how you administer your policy especially if you’re planning to terminate employees for violating the policy.

Years ago I wrote a zero-tolerance type of policy for a recruiting firm. However, they regularly take their clients out for lunch or dinner including covering drinks. In this circumstance, the employee and the guest are “drinking on the job” and the drinking is authorized (and paid for) by the company.

Our solution was to create prohibit alcohol and drugs during and before working, as is the general practice. But we created a very specific disclaimer section in the policy that allowed responsible drinking during client meals and other business related functions. It also stated that employees were not permitted to become impaired and were responsible for ensuring that they represented the company in a professional manner at all times.

Since that time I’ve written a variety of other versions of this policy. For example, for several clients we added more protective wording that in the event the employee or client becomes impaired, the company will cover the cost of a taxi to ensure that the individual does not drive.

Next step? The client with the former beer-drinking employee is reviewing and updating their handbook to make sure that they are clear on their position and take into account business-related social drinking. My recommendation is that you dust off your alcohol and drug policy and see if it’s an accurate reflection of your practices – then update it so that there’s no question on how it’s understood and administered.

Of course, if you need help with it, give me a call.


©2015 Arlene Vernon

About Arlene Vernon

Arlene has provided HR consulting and management training services to over 500 organizations since starting HRx, Inc. in 1992.

If you’re seeking a hands-on, practical HRxpert to assist your organization with employee relations, policy development, strategic HR activities or fun/doable management training, call on Arlene – Your HRxpert.

If you’re planning a conference, seminar or special event, Arlene specializes in keynotes, seminars and workshops to meet your talent management needs. And if you’re seeking a more lively entertaining activity, Arlene’s custom songs and musical-inspirational keynote may be perfect for your organization!

HRx, Inc., Eden Prairie, MN 55344, 952.996.0975ww.HRxcellence.com. Arlene@ArleneVernon.com

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