Alcohol at work functions

Alcohol at work functions: 7 points to ponder

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It is the time of year when many employers are planning or hosting their year-end or award functions and whether this is on- or off the company premises, it often involves the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol at work functions can lead to unintended consequences which last long after the fun and even the effects of the alcohol have faded.

To what extent should an employer, who makes alcohol available to employees during a function, be responsible to mitigate the effects of alcohol consumption in order to safeguard employees and to avoid potential legal liability?

Employers can be held legally liable for damages caused by the actions of their employees if those actions took place within the course and scope of their employment.  This could include company-sponsored functions and events.

Apart from that, there is potential for reputational damage to the employer caused by intoxicated employees; or harm caused by such employees to themselves or others by driving under the influence of alcohol or simply driving whilst over the legal limit.

Health and safety obligations and possible workplace injuries could also impact the business, especially where the function takes place on the company premises.

While you need to mitigate the legal liability and risk of your business, you do not want to allow legal concerns to dictate your relationship with your staff. Here are some pointers on how you may safeguard your company against some of the risks but still enjoy the festivities:

  1. Create awareness of your company culture among employees with specific reference to the fact that excessive consumption of alcohol is unacceptable at work functions. Include guidelines on the use of alcohol in your company’s code of conduct and/or disciplinary code.
  2. Be sure to offer a range of non-alcoholic beverages at functions, to remove the focus from alcohol. Never make drinking (or eating, for that matter) the main focus of any function.  Always ensure that there is ample entertainment, presentations, the sale of branded goods or gifts, games, or other activities for employees to participate in and that these are the main focus of your company or team-building event.
  3. Consider serving only wine and beer, and no spirits or shooters. Limit the amount of alcohol that the company provides by using a ticket or voucher system or some other means to keep track of the number of drinks served to each individual.  Penalties or Fines in the form of downing drinks or shooters should be strictly prohibited.
  4. Restrict the period of time that the bar will be open. Close the bar while meals are being served or while presentations are being made and at a reasonable time to signal that the event is drawing to a close.
  5. Use a professional bar service with trained bartenders. Do not allow employees to serve their colleagues or themselves.   In fact, it is never a good idea to introduce a self-service beverage bar which includes alcohol.
  6. Review your Company’s insurance and risk cover to establish whether you will be covered for an event where alcohol is served.
  7. Prior to the event, you should issue an advisory notice which provides guidelines on employee behaviour at the event and which informs employees that they are responsible for their behaviour, even whilst under the influence of alcohol. This advisory should include a cautionary note that alcohol should be consumed in moderation as well as a reminder of the provisions of the Road Traffic Act in respect of driving under the influence.  The advisory document should include a reference to the fact that all employees are still bound by the Company’s Code of Conduct at Company-sponsored events, even where these take place outside of working hours and that disciplinary action may be taken against employees who over-indulge and/or who behave inappropriately.  It is recommended that employees sign or indicate acknowledgement of this advisory notice, which can be built into their response (RSVP) to the invitation to the event.

While alcohol can add some festive cheer to an event, employers should be mindful that during the function, just like in the workplace, employee safety should be their top priority.