Establish a Policy on Serving Alcohol to Employees

By Pushor Mitchell LLP
Categories: Blog, Employment Law

During the holiday season, questions tend to arise regarding liability flowing from serving alcohol at staff functions. The simplest and most effective way of avoiding liability is, of course, to stop serving alcohol at company events. Many companies have already adopted this approach and the world has yet to come to an end as a result (at least as of the time when this was written).

If that isnt a satisfactory solution, there are a number of steps the employer should take to protect its employees and, ultimately, itself. The first step towards ensuring an impaired employee doesn’t end up in a tragic accident is to establish a policy governing service of alcohol at company events.

Such a policy is intended to address the two problems which tend to combine to create a dangerous situation. The first problem is the employees’ attitude towards events at which alcohol is made available. It may be only a very small percentage of the workforce but certain employees do approach these events with the intention of over-consuming (or at least with the belief that it is acceptable to do so).

The second problem is the organizational approach to such events. Much of the responsibility for employees’ over-consumption lies with the organizers of the event. The way in which the event is managed can go a long way towards ensuring that over-consumption does not occur.

As a result, the policy has two objectives, both of which are aimed at preventing the occurrence of an accident (as that is the most effective way of ensuring that no liability will arise). The first objective is to put employees on notice that the matter of alcohol consumption at staff events is taken seriously. Employees must be made to understand that staff events are not an excuse for consuming alcohol to the point of posing a danger to themselves and others.

The second objective is to establish some basic rules governing the organization and management of such events. Companies need to ensure that the manner in which the event is set up discourages excessive drinking. The reality is that many companies still organize events in a way that creates the opposite impression.

The policy should start off with a statement that the company opposes over-consumption and, in particular, opposes the operation of a vehicle (or other inherently dangerous activities) while impaired. It should also emphasize that the objective of the policy is to establish a protocol for responsible consumption of alcohol at staff events.

The policy should create a number of conditions of attendance by employees. It should start by clarifying that employees are invited to company events on the condition that they accept responsibility for their own alcohol consumption.

The policy should also place the onus on the employees of moderating their intake of alcohol and of co-operating with the employer’s efforts to ensure their safety. It should clearly reserve for the company the right to ban, from future events, any employee who ignores (or fails to comply with) the conditions of attendance.

The policy should go on to establish rules governing the hosting of company events where alcohol will be served. This is the part of the policy which is meant to manage the event organizers to ensure that company events do not lead to a tragic accident. This is not intended to be a complete list of “dos” and “don’ts” but only to establish certain basic guidelines.

The policy should state that, at all company events where alcohol is served, the company will remind the attendees of the policy and of their obligations under it. It should also impose the obligation to always provide a selection of food and non-alcoholic beverages as alternatives to alcoholic beverages.

The policy will place on the organizers the obligation to take steps to prevent an employee showing outward signs of impairment from continuing to consume alcohol. It will compel the organizers to appoint a designated driver or to provide alternate means of transportation home for attendees who show outward signs of impairment. Finally, it will create an obligation to prevent an attendee who shows outward signs of impairment from leaving the event unaccompanied.

Aside from the published policy, the employer should also distribute to event organizers a list of instructions on how to, and how not to, organize a staff event. Such lists of “dos” and “don’ts” are widely available and should form the basic company procedure for the staging of an event at which alcohol will be made available. These don’t necessarily need, however, to be included in the policy.

Event organizers should be made to understand that organizing company events is considered to be an element of their employment. Disciplinary measures should be imposed if they fail to follow established guidelines and, in doing so, expose their employer to liability.

As with all employment policies, this item will be of no use if the employer does not intend to enforce the rules it has adopted. Because of the risks to employees and employer alike, this is one area which definitely should not be ignored.