Confronting an employee drinking problem
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Managing an employee with an alcohol problem is one of the most difficult issues you can face as an employer. Not only are their attendance records likely to take a hit, but their alcohol dependence can also have a negative effect on the volume and quality of work the individual is producing.

This in turn could decrease the overall productivity and output of your business, as well as affecting other members of your team and creating a negative atmosphere in the office.

Despite the issues caused, it’s vital to remember that staff with a drinking problem have the same rights to confidentiality and support as individuals with other physical or mental health issues.

A person with an alcohol dependence will need to take action themselves to recover, but as an employer you can ease their journey by adopting an understanding approach.

So, how should you deal with an employee who has a drinking problem? What happens if they’re drinking on the job? And does alcohol dependence count as a disability? We’ve put together this guide to help you navigate this tricky issue.

Is drinking at work illegal?

Generally, there are no laws against drinking alcohol at work in an office environment. However, for individuals who have to drive or operate machinery for their work, for example lorry or train drivers, it is an offence to drink on the job.

Although it might not be illegal for your employees to consume alcohol in the workplace, many organisations will choose to bar the consumption of alcohol during working hours due to the negative impact it could have on their business.

Dealing with an employee alcohol problem

This section relates to having a suspicion that your employee is drinking heavily rather than that they are drunk at work.

Potential signs of alcohol problems

Heavy drinking can lead to the following behaviours.

Work signs:

  • frequent absence or lateness
  • inability to focus on tasks
  • poor quality and/quantity of work produced
  • missing deadlines
  • erratic behaviour
  • falling asleep at work
  • avoiding supervisors.

Physical signs:

  • smelling of alcohol
  • poor personal hygiene/neglecting appearance
  • bloodshot eyes
  • excessive use of chewing gum, breath mints and mouthwash
  • shaking/tremors.

It’s important to remember that individuals with drinking problems may not necessarily exhibit any of these indicators, and that an employee who does show any of these signs may not be have a drinking problem. Other medication or health conditions may be the cause.

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Check your drugs and alcohol policy

If you suspect that one of your employees may have problems with alcohol, refer to your drugs and alcohol policy, which should be tailored to your business and the style of work. Most policies will state that:

  • alcohol should not be consumed during the working day, during breaks or shortly before work, or at work events without explicit permission
  • turning up to work drunk or drinking alcohol at work is unacceptable and may be considered an example of gross misconduct
  • a level of support may be provided to an employee with a drinking problem, such as time off work to receive treatment
  • all information will remain confidential.

Call a meeting

If, after careful but unobtrusive monitoring of the situation, you’re fairly certain that your employee has a drinking problem, you should arrange some time with them to have a private chat.

Before the meeting, it’s a good idea to get some relevant information and evidence together. This could be attendance or lateness records, appraisal reports or copies of work produced to a poor standard.

Make sure the discussion takes place in a space away from the main office where you won’t be disturbed, and where the employee feels comfortable. Be prepared for the employee to be in denial, or even angry, but be sure to remain calm, listen to what they say and adopt a positive attitude.

Start the conversation by asking the individual how they’re doing and saying that you’ve noticed they may be struggling lately. Give examples of how their performance has fallen below the standard expected. If the employee does not volunteer information about heavy drinking, then explain why you suspect this may be happening.

You’ll need to take a balanced approach. An employee attending work under the influence of alcohol can be a serious risk to themselves and others. It’s important to emphasise that being drunk at work is not acceptable and to ensure they have a copy of your alcohol and drugs policy.

However, at the same time, it is important to encourage the employee to seek support from their GP or an alcohol advice agency, and to facilitate time off where required to help their recovery.

Agree further action

Explain to the employee that you will continue to monitor the situation. If there are any actions you can take to help them at work, agree what can be done. Be sure to document your plan.

If an employee continues to underperform and/or cause concern, you may decide to follow either the capability or the disciplinary policy. Either way, ensure you have followed a clear process before you consider dismissal to avoid a successful unfair dismissal claim.

What if an employee is drinking on the job?

If you suspect your employee is under the influence while at work, this is a very serious matter and normally viewed as potential gross misconduct. Speak to the colleague in private, preferably with a second witness to observe the behaviour and to ensure your personal safety.

Ask the employee if they have been drinking alcohol and if so, when and how much. If you believe the employee is unfit to work, send them home and ensure they reach home safely (clearly, they should not drive). Retain evidence of what you’ve observed.

When they are next in work, arrange an investigation meeting in order to decide upon next steps. If you believe that this is potential gross misconduct, you can then use the disciplinary policy. If the employee has an alcohol dependency you may treat this as mitigation.

Is alcohol dependence a disability?

In short, no. The Equality Act 2010 states that ‘addiction to/dependency on alcohol, nicotine or any other substance (other than medically prescribed drugs or other medical treatment’ should not be considered a disability.

However, heavy drinking can be a response to mental health issues or physical conditions and can in turn lead to serious health problems. In both instances, these other issues could equate to disabilities under the Equality Act.

If this is the scenario, you need to treat the individual as per anyone else with a serious underlying health condition, including offering reasonable adjustments. Failure to do so could result in a discrimination claim in an employment tribunal.

Get HR Support

If you have a member of staff with an alcohol problem and would like some advice on your obligations as an employer, our HR consultants can help.

Get in touch on info@citrushr.com or give us a call on 0333 444 0165 to find out more about how we can help your business with friendly, expert HR support.

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The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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