Introduction

There is a growing requirement for companies to demonstrate social & ethical responsibility with employees who have health related issues. Alcohol and drug abuse should be considered to be health-related issues.

Alcohol creates its own particular difficulties from a management perspective. This is because it is associated with socialising and celebration. Alcohol at office parties and "after-work" drinks may make it difficult to differentiate between moderate "social" use and alcohol abuse. Alcohol is widely used in the UK, and because of this employers should constantly review alcohol policies to ensure that any abuse is discouraged and adverse effects of even moderate use are not carried into the workplace.

Health & safety considerations

Alcohol abuse raises broad issues of health and safety for the entire workforce. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. There is also a common law duty of care that employers have towards all their employees. The needs of the problem drinker must be set against the needs of his or her fellow workers who are entitled to a safe place of work. Their safety may be compromised by the behaviour of someone whose ability and judgement are affected by drink.

Disciplinary implications

Alcohol-related misdemeanours may constitute a capability (performance) issue if there is a possible dependency factor whilst a one-off incident of bad behaviour may constitute misconduct. The latter may well be mitigated if the bad behaviour was caused by excessive consumption of alcohol (provided by the employer) at, say an office party.

If there is a possibility of a dependency issue it is "best practice" to adopt a twin-track approach to the issue by providing support in parallel with a disciplinary process. Such support could include assisting to the employee in recognising that he or she has a dependency problem and providing encouragement and assistance in securing help, possibly through counselling or a detox/rehabilitation programme. An Occupational Health professional could provide advice in the most appropriate course of action. However, for reasons of confidentiality, the employee's consent must be obtained before involving a third party.

Random drug and alcohol testing

An employer may need to know if a person is under the influence of alcohol. However, the Human Rights Act 1998 needs to be taken into consideration. Employers may not resort to random alcohol (or drug) testing without taking into account the possible restraint this may place on the employee's right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a general principle, employers should ensure that the right to carry out alcohol or drug testing is enshrined in their contracts of employment and is only used in the work context to ensure safety and to protect the employer's reputation. Any such testing should be carried out consistently across the workforce as a whole. On this basis, an employee who is dismissed for refusing to submit to a contractual alcohol test would need to demonstrate that the request for the test was in some way arbitrary or oppressive.