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