By Lisa Gallivan and Alison Strachan

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and what better day to remind employers of how to deal with drinking during working hours.  Does having a beer or martini at lunch with a client or co-worker seem old school to you?  It isn’t.  Some employers actively encourage recreational drinking during the work day.  Ad agency Kirshenbaum, Bond, Senecal + Partners, for example, reportedly hosts internal, open bar events called Trolleys, a name derived from a drink cart that had rolled around the ad agency serving cocktails in the early 1990s.  Some even allow drinking during working hours as a result of a study, Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving, that concludes that consuming alcohol “can help your mind explore unorthodox solutions”.

Generally speaking though, we are easily lulled into thinking consuming alcohol during the workday is the exception and not the rule, but who doesn’t recall drunken antics by a couple of high profile executives aboard a Toronto to Beijing flight, forcing the plane to land in Vancouver? The publicity was devastating for the executives and for their employer.  There seem to be many more alcohol partakers during working hours than those high profile executives though.  One report estimates that the cost of drinking during working hours to businesses is staggering:

The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission conducted a workplace study that showed alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems on the job were indirectly related to the following four factors:

Workplace Culture and Group Norms

Employees who drink with co-workers have higher absenteeism rates, lower productivity and more on-the-job injuries. Using alcohol at business lunches, office parties, and other work-related functions can contribute to a workplace culture of alcohol use.

Alcohol Availability

Where alcohol is available at or near a worksite, employees generally are more likely to drink at work, report more absenteeism, are less productive and consume more alcohol per week.

Work Stress

Work stress can influence alcohol consumption, especially where there is a lack of social supports.

Workplace Social Controls

Having workplace alcohol policies that are consistently enforced is associated with lower alcohol consumption; when organizational controls are low or absent, then employees engage in more drinking.

What types of businesses have a greater risk for alcohol problems at the workplace?  If you guessed “small and medium-sized businesses”, you’re right.  The reason for this is that small and medium-sized businesses are less likely to have alcohol or drug policies in their workplace.

What can you do?

Workplaces can implement policies and activities that address what has been termed by some as a “workplace alcohol culture”.  A workplace alcohol policy should, in all cases, be tailored to the business seeking to rely on it and should be reviewed by a lawyer to ensure compliance with local human rights laws.  At a minimum, it will provide a rationale for why it was developed and what it aims to accomplish; who it applies to and when; what the employer expects and prohibits and any company or community supports that may help an employee comply with the policy; and, of course, consequences for violating the policy.  But an alcohol policy alone is not going to do it for most employees.  Employers should adopt a comprehensive approach to the issue that provides employees with education, provides training and ongoing support for supervisors and managers, and, when possible, an employee assistance program supporting all workers.

Lisa Gallivan and Alison Strachan are the editors of, and regular contributors to, Stewart McKelvey’s HRLaw blog.  HRLaw regularly blogs on current human resources issues and case law updates.  In addition, Stewart McKelvey has a vibrant twitter presence @SM_EmployerLaw where Lisa and Alison tweet daily on human resources issues.  Lisa also works as a facilitator and can assist companies through policy development and organizational human resource challenges.