Alcohol in the workplace: a hard no for some employers while others always keep the office kitchen stocked. But what do the employment laws say about it?
Is alcohol allowed in the workplace?
It depends. The key to answering this question is asking how employee alcohol consumption in the workplace intersects with your duties, as an employer, under relevant occupational health and safety laws, human rights laws, privacy laws, and any employment contract and policy.
Employers are generally obligated to take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for employees. In Ontario, for instance, the Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers instruct, inform and supervise workers to protect their health and safety (section 25(2)(a)).
With respect to human rights laws, employers have a duty to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship, employees who have a disability. Alcohol addiction is considered a disability that is protected under human rights legislation in several jurisdictions. (For more information about this topic and its relationship with employee privacy, check out our 4-part series on substance addictions at work.)
Before implementing any new rules or taking any (non-urgent) actions in response to workplace alcohol use, employers should be aware of whether alcohol consumption in the workplace is addressed in any employment contracts with employees or their employee handbook. It is always good to include an alcohol-specific policy in an employee handbook at the least, so employees know where to look to learn more about alcohol-related rules and employers can ensure consistency in enforcing the rules.
What disciplinary measures can I take?
Discipline can be considered if an employee breaches an alcohol-related workplace policy such as where there is an express ban on alcohol use or possession in the workplace or the employee’s alcohol use impairs their work performance and ability to adhere to safety requirements and work standards. However, the rules which the employee breached must have been made clear to and understood by the employee, the discipline must be proportionate to the gravity of the misconduct and the measures taken by the employer must be backed up by a proper investigation. As a side note, remember there is a difference between breaking a workplace rule and being impaired on the job due to a disability (the latter which calls for employee accommodations).
Should I implement a zero tolerance policy for alcohol?
This will differ depending on several factors. In some industries and workplace environments, employers may be more reluctant to ban alcohol use during work hours, as alcohol use has been and continues to be pervasive and a big part of the workplace culture in some industries. In others, such as those in which employees occupy safety-sensitive positions, be it operating heavy machinery or driving public buses, or family-oriented businesses, there may be greater justification for implementing a zero-tolerance alcohol policy. In some jurisdictions, such as in British Columbia, alcohol impairment in the workplace is expressly addressed in the legislation. At the end of the day, your workplace alcohol policy, zero-tolerance or not, should be communicated clearly to your employees, consistently enforced and comply with your obligations as an employer in relation to health and safety, human rights, and privacy laws.
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