Precautions to take when serving alcohol at year-end work functions


Labour law expert Judith Griessel says an employer can legally be held liable for damages caused by the actions of intoxicated employees.

It’s that time of the year when companies have their year-end functions. Whether these functions are on or off work premises, alcoholic refreshments are usually available and this has the potential to become a headache for many employers.

An employer can legally be held liable for damages caused by the actions of its employees if those actions took place within the course and scope of their employment. Add to that the potential damage that could be done to the employer’s reputation or internal work relationships by intoxicated employees; the danger of employees driving under the influence of alcohol or when over the legal limit; potential contravention of health and safety obligations; allegations of harassment (sexual or otherwise) – and it is clear that employers need to put some thought into measures to ensure acceptable and appropriate behaviour at work functions where alcohol is served. Employers should be able to demonstrate that they have a least made an effort to try and manage employees’ conduct around alcohol consumption, in particular preventing them from driving when over the legal limit or in an intoxicated state.

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Although most employers generally have an alcohol policy in place, often stipulating a “zero tolerance” approach to alcohol consumption in relation to their work or workplace, this policy is usually relaxed for the purposes of social work functions. Employees need to understand that this does not mean that all the rules are suspended for the duration of the function. So, in order to avoid such misperception and having to deal with infringements after the fact, it is prudent for the employer to clarify its policy guidelines in this regard and communicate these to employees (again) prior to the function.

That means informing employees that behaviour at social work functions still requires a level of decorum suitable to a working environment and that it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that they consume alcohol with discretion (even if it’s free!). It's also important to state that employees (or their guests) would be removed from the premises if their conduct is inappropriate. Furthermore, policy should state that the employer will not accept liability for harm or damages which may be caused by the employee as a result of his/her alcohol consumption. Lastly, employers should be reminded of the potential disciplinary action arising from the employees conduct at the work function, whether it occurs on or off the premises, which would have an impact on the employment relationship. Where employees, for example, drive company vehicles as part of their job function and their licence is endorsed or suspended as a result of such offences, this will impact directly on the employer’s operations.

From a practical point of view, the employer should manage the situation at the venue to limit the potential for abuse. For example:

  • Make breathalysers available for employees to test whether they are within the legal limit before driving home;
  • Confiscate car keys and/or provide the details of a taxi service;
  • Limit the amount of alcohol that each employee may consume by issuing “drinks tickets”;
  • Ensure that sufficient food, non-alcoholic drinks and lots of water are available;
  • Issue instructions to the bar and/or servers to stop serving alcoholic drinks to employees who are becoming visibly intoxicated and/or unruly;
  • Do not allow any types of drinking games, high alcohol consumption prizes;
  • Let your employees clearly know the start and finish times and keep to this;
  • Ensure responsible managers clearly understand substance abuse and alcohol policies and that they know to step in should any situation get out of control.

Year-end functions should be occasions to unwind and relax with colleagues outside of the normal working environment – however it is not a “free-for-all”. Incidents at such functions can have a lasting effect on an employee’s reputation, their work relationships and even their career prospects. The more senior the employee, the more serious it usually is. HR managers ‘forgetting themselves’ at such functions will have difficulty to manage workplace discipline going forward if their own behaviour does not subscribe to the rules they are trying to enforce. Waking up full of regret the morning after is, frankly, too little too late.

Both employers and employees have responsibilities around their conduct in any work context and are duty-bound to ensure that the company’s interests are not prejudiced in any way.

Judith Griessel is a labour law consultant and director at Griessel Consulting

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