Alcohol (mis)use at work functions

“At our recent work function for company staff at a private outside venue, a few of the staff members had too much to drink and became loud, inappropriate and even offensive, to the point where a number of the other staff members left the function early. Afterwards a number of staff complained to me about the conduct of these staff members. How do I manage this and avoid similar situations arising at the next function?”

It is unfortunate when a work event intended to foster positive staff relations goes wrong because of the misuse of alcohol reducing inhibitions and allowing negative or inappropriate conduct to surface, ruining the experience for everyone involved. Such behaviour, if allowed to continue unchecked, can also negatively influence the culture of a company and make it increasingly difficult to curb it being seen as ‘acceptable’ conduct at work functions. 

It is important to note that the attendance of any official work function of a company is an employee privilege within the employment relationship with the employer. This means that such a function falls within the course and scope of employment and all the rules of the employer also apply to such a function. Accordingly, even though the specific conduct of employees at such a function may not be spelt out in the rules of the employer, employees are required by reason of the employee-employer relationship to be respectful to their employer and colleagues, including withholding themselves from conduct which undermines this employment relationship and which prejudices the employer.

The fact that the function may have been held outside the company office or formal working hours is irrelevant as this obligation on employees extends beyond the workplace and normal working hours. This means that an employer is well within their rights to take disciplinary steps against employees that have breached this obligation, thereby making it clear that such conduct is unacceptable.

What should also be noted is as such a function falls within the course and scope of employment, it also includes a duty on the employer to ensure that reasonable steps are taken to protect employees, failing which the employer could be held liable for a breach of this duty. This means that if steps were not taken by the employer to stop offensive, harassing, victimising or intimidating conduct at a function, the employer could be liable to an employee that was a victim of such untoward conduct at the work function and now seeks legal redress.

Accordingly, it is important that employers are clear regarding their views on required conduct at work functions and clamp down on transgressors to avoid a systemic culture of inappropriate conduct developing at the company. A useful step is to update the firm rules with clear guidelines on acceptable conduct at work social functions and then to remind staff of such rules and each individual’s responsibility to monitor their consumption of alcohol and conduct, including making transport arrangements if necessary. 

It may be useful to obtain the assistance of a labour practitioner to investigate possible disciplinary measures against your employees and to help with a review of your current workplace rules to incorporate clear rules regarding employee conduct at social work events.

February 9, 2016
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