The holiday season is here again and with it comes holiday parties. It is, therefore, a good time to consider the complex issue of alcohol and the workplace. Unfortunately, what can start as a good time can often end with incidents of alleged/actual harassment, discipline and fired employees.
It is therefore important that employers ensure that employees understand the difference between a good time and inappropriate conduct. And because it is practically impossible to control the actions of each worker, the following can be important ingredients to ensure success.
An Alcohol Use Policy
Clear policies relaying expectations in relation to alcohol use in the workplace (and at workplace events) can go a long way to set the tone for how employees should be conducting themselves. The policy should be appropriate for the specific industry and demonstrate a balance between issues such as health and safety, human rights, and employee privacy. It is also important that workplace policies be applied in a consistent manner. A written policy is of little value without a demonstrated strong commitment on the part of an employer to ensure consistent application.
Employee rights and Workplace Alcohol Use Policies
To find balance and preserve employee rights, workplace alcohol use policies should include, at minimum:
- A mechanism by which employees can self-report concerning alcohol use without fear of discipline or reprisal;
- An acknowledgement that alcohol addiction is a recognized disability requiring accommodation pursuant to the Ontario Human Rights Code; and
- A requirement that employees (especially at the managerial level) be trained regarding alcohol use at work.
In addition, employers should be sure to bring the policy to the attention of their employees to increase awareness and the employer’s ability to rely on the policy.
Employees and Alcohol Testing
While employers may consider implementing alcohol testing as part of their policy, employers should consider whether there is a legitimate justification for taking this approach considering:
- The type of work being performed;
- Industry practice; and
- The format for the testing (i.e. on a random basis, after a workplace incident, as a condition of working in a particular role).
If there is insufficient justification for the inclusion of an alcohol testing element in the alcohol use policy, employers would be well advised to avoid its inclusion.
Investigate and Fire where Necessary
Unfortunately, despite any preventative steps, there are times when firing an employee is the only appropriate step.
Before taking action to terminate the employment of any employee for conduct relating to alcohol use, particularly for cause, employers should consult with legal counsel to ensure that they have the legal standing to do so and to put into place a strategy to minimize liability moving forward. Similarly, an employee who has had their employment terminated in relation to alcohol at a work event should seek out the services of an experienced employment lawyer to ensure their rights are being preserved.
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