Some businesses embrace the idea of allowing alcohol in the office to celebrate a big win, facilitate team bonding or offer an attractive perk for employees. Still, there are several serious and practical concerns to consider when your business is mixing work with drinking, such as insurance, legal considerations and cultural fit. That’s why it’s important to develop a thoughtful alcohol policy before you make office happy hours an official perk.
The founding principle of an office alcohol policy is to establish guidelines for responsible drinking in an office setting. If you’re thinking about instituting an office alcohol policy, here are a few points to address:
To create an office alcohol policy, start by acknowledging the potential risks of allowing employees to drink while on the job or in the office. Alcohol should be off-limits in any industry where there is a high probability of causing serious injury to oneself or others, such as healthcare, construction and transportation. But even in industries where employees aren’t making life-and-death decisions, consuming alcohol at work can have several repercussions, including absenteeism, increased healthcare costs, injuries or accidents on the job, and damage to equipment or products.
The impaired judgment that comes from alcohol consumption can also lower productivity, loosen inhibitions and result in inappropriate behavior.
“Employees who become impaired are more likely to say or do things that could lead to claims of a hostile work environment,” said Robert Dominguez, corporate counsel for Ember Education. “We’ve all heard horror stories about things that happen at company holiday parties. Now imagine that scenario every Friday or every day.”
If, after examining the potential risks, you decide that drinking at the office is worth exploring, follow these steps:
If your employees commonly go out for drinks to celebrate a new deal, unwind at the end of a busy week or entertain clients, you may already have an alcohol-friendly workplace. If this is the case, it makes sense to establish a formal alcohol policy.
Reach out to your employees to see if they are interested in an office alcohol policy or if they would prefer a different employee benefit, such as additional paid time off or the ability to bring pets to the office.
“The first step for any employer who is considering serving alcohol at work is to speak to an attorney who specializes in personal injury defense to get a full understanding of the risk picture,” Dominguez said.
An attorney will discuss your liability concerns, such as what happens if an employee drinks too much at work and gets into an accident driving home, or injures or harasses a co-worker while intoxicated. Additionally, an employment attorney will help you comply with all applicable regulations and laws.
For example, if you are a federal contractor or your company performs certain types of work, you must adhere to the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, which, among other stipulations, requires you to certify that your business is a drug-free workplace.
Determine whether your insurance coverage permits alcohol to be served in the office or at off-site company events.
“Employers would be wise to review their insurance policies, especially their commercial general insurance and workers’ compensation,” Dominguez said. “By serving alcohol at the work site, employers may be unwittingly destroying or severely limiting their coverage.”
Research federal and state laws to determine if your business is required to have a drug and alcohol policy in place. Much like a visitor policy helps to protect your employees, data and guests, an office alcohol policy may help you avoid fines and other penalties for any statute breaches, as well as potential litigation from employees.
Even if you are not required by law to institute an official policy, developing one is imperative if you are thinking of making alcohol a part of your office offerings. Your policy should explicitly indicate the amount, times and places where it is acceptable to drink, as well as the types of beverages that fall within company guidelines. Some workplaces, for example, allow beer and wine but not hard liquor. Others limit the number of drinks employees can have on a given day. They use tracking methods such as hand stamps, tickets or even an app to keep an eye on how much employees indulge.
The policy should also state the consequences for any infractions or violations. Consequences can include a host of disciplinary actions, termination or even the facilitation of an employee’s enrollment in an alcohol rehabilitation program. Be aware that employees with alcoholism are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); however, ADA rights do not prohibit these employees from being terminated if the situation warrants it. Still, it does mean they cannot be treated more severely for the same conduct or infractions as their co-workers.
When you’re ready to implement the policy, follow these best practices:
“We incorporate informal rules into onboarding,” said Taylor Toce, president and CEO of Velo IT Group, whose employees have access to a beer-stocked refrigerator. For example, in addition to discussing your policy during new-hire orientations, you should review it with more seasoned employees during annual training. All employees should also be required to read and sign a copy of the company alcoholic beverages guidelines.
Have an arrangement with a taxi, car or ride-sharing service so that employees who choose to drink at the office always have easy access to transportation that doesn’t put themselves or others in danger.
Companies can temper the availability of alcoholic drinks in the office by providing a range of snacks and a variety of nonalcoholic beverages. This helps to ensure that employees who can’t drink or choose not to for personal, health or religious reasons don’t feel excluded, which would defeat the original purpose of allowing employees to drink: increased opportunities for bonding and camaraderie.
To avoid any perception of coercion, management should communicate that there is no expectation to drink. It’s also important to be aware that an environment where alcohol is present can be triggering for people who are recovering from addiction. Senior management should be ready to step in and support employees who may find this type of work environment challenging.
Your entire staff can benefit from access to an employee assistance program (EAP) that helps employees deal with difficult or challenging life situations, including dependent care and mental health issues. Moreover, an EAP can provide access to counseling, assessments and treatment referrals for employees who struggle with substance abuse.
Establishing this type of resource is the responsible action for any company that makes alcohol part of its culture, but it also makes sense from a fiscal perspective. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol and drug treatment is a worthy investment that pays for itself in reduced healthcare costs that begin as soon as people enter recovery.
Ultimately, the goal is to arrive at a happy medium where employees enjoy their fair share of freedom while the company protects the integrity of its work and reputation.
As workplaces become less rigid and find new ways to attract talent, more employees may kick off the weekend early with a few drinks in the office lounge or celebrate a new account with some beer or Champagne. As long as the drinking does not overshadow the work, it may become a standard employee perk at certain organizations.
“A little imbibing makes for a happier team, improves overall morale and fosters internal connections by giving employees a chance to bond,” Toce said.
If you’re developing an office alcohol policy for your business, you’ll need to consider how it will apply to employees who work remotely. It may seem like common sense to extend the same policy to your remote employees, but there are some additional considerations to keep in mind.
Whereas you can closely monitor in-house employees’ drink consumption, it’s almost impossible to do so for remote employees. Given a Centers for Disease Control report showing a spike in substance abuse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an office alcohol policy might exacerbate the problem. Another study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, found that nearly 9 million U.S. workers use alcohol during the workday. Discovering that your remote employees are abusing your office alcohol policy could lead to substantial liabilities for your business.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, one-third of employees admitted to using drugs or alcohol while working from home, according to the American Addiction Centers.
If you’re looking to create an office alcohol policy for your business, consider taking the following actions to ensure your remote workers don’t feel excluded but aren’t tempted to abuse the policy:
Paula Fernandes contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.