Alcohol and Work Functions

alcohol work functions Nov 18, 2019


The end of the year is upon us and many organisations have already arrangements for their year-end functions. Whether these functions are on- or off premises, alcoholic refreshments are usually available and this is a potential headache for many employers. In more than one way.

Most employers 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 however usually relaxed for the purposes of social work functions – but employees need to understand that this does not mean that all the rules are suspended for the duration of the function.

Intoxicated employees can do a lot of potential damage to the employer’s reputation or to internal work relationships. There can be potential contraventions of health and safety obligations; allegations of harassment (sexual or otherwise); and also the danger of employees driving under the influence of alcohol or when over the legal limit.

An employer can further legally be held liable for damages caused by the actions of its employees if there is a sufficiently close link between the harm caused by the employee and the business of the employer - more so if the employer is instrumental in the creation of risk of harm to a third party. This would justify vicarious liability on the part of the employer, even when the employee in fact acted entirely for his or her own purpose, according to the Supreme Court of Appeals in the recent case of Stallion Security (Pty) Limited v van Staden (526/2018) [2019] ZASCA 127 (27 September 2019).

It is therefore clear that employers need to put some thought into measures to ensure acceptable and appropriate behaviour at work functions where alcohol is served – regardless of whether this is on- or off the employers’ premises. 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.

So, in order to avoid staff misperceptions 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.

Such communication could include:

  • 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!).
  • Stating that employees (or their guests) would be removed from the premises if their conduct is inappropriate.
  • Stating 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.
  • Reminding them that the employer would be entitled to take disciplinary action against an employee for any conduct – on or off the premises – which impacts on the employment relationship.

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, or arrange for ride-share options;
  • Limit the amount of alcohol that each employee may consume by issuing ‘drinks tickets’;
  • Have wine on the table, but a cash bar;
  • 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. Managers (or HR) ‘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 


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