What should employers do about an employee smelling of alcohol?

An employee of yours has reported to their line manager that a colleague smells of alcohol. Do you have an alcohol/drugs policy in place? Does their role involve driving or working with heavy machinery? Do you feel confident in your staff to investigate it efficiently?

Previously on HR24, we have discussed the role of random drug and alcohol testing in work, and with the football season starting again it felt necessary to cover how you should handle alcohol-related misconduct in the workplace.

According to ACAS, in 2015 nearly a third of UK workers admitted to being under the influence of alcohol at work, or alcohol having an effect on their work to some extent, at least once a week. In the survey of around 2600 workers, an enormous 85% claimed to have been drunk in work at some point that year, not including the work Christmas party.

Additionally, the survey highlighted that more than a quarter of the respondents claimed to have worked under the influence of drugs. Results showing that this was considerably higher in younger employees, 90% of those using drugs were under 30 years old.


If you are a business owner or senior decision maker (we do not deal with employees) and are affected by any of the issues raised in this article and would like to speak to an HR Employment Law expert confidentially and FREE of charge then do not hesitate to call us 24/7 x 365 on 01702 447145.

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Where’s the harm?

According to Drinkaware Trust, an independent UK-wide alcohol education charity, up to one in four workplace accidents involve alcohol. If your business is in the transport or energy sector, then one indisposed employee is a major threat to colleagues and members of the public dependant on their role. Similarly, if your business is based in an office where you are handling sensitive data such as client information, one mistake could cost you dearly in lost trade.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), alcohol is estimated to cause 3-5% of all absences from work with 8-14 million lost working days in the UK each year. The HSE warns that should you knowingly allow an employee under the influence of “excess alcohol” to continue working, placing the employee or others at risk, you could be prosecuted.

So what should I do?

Launch an investigation. Initially, you should interview the employee to try and establish the extent of their condition. You need to determine whether or not the member of staff is incapable of working, or if they are posing a risk to themselves or anyone else. If that is the case, then they must be sent home immediately. As an employer, you shouldn’t allow yourself to overlook instances such as these. Not handling employee drunkenness could set the wrong kind of precedent, and thus inspire other members of staff to similarly come to work inebriated, under the assumption that you’re unlikely to act.

You can also refer to what information you have stored on that employee in regards to their sickness absence. If, for instance, you find that they frequently miss work after sporting events or known work nights out, then you will have a better understanding of the nature of their condition.

Once you have completed your investigation, you may find it necessary to start your disciplinary process if appropriate. Please feel free to contact us on our helpline, or we have a series of webinars covering this if unsure.

Having a drugs and alcohol policy won’t guarantee that you avoid this issue entirely, but it will provide a guideline on how to handle this situation safely without finding yourself being taken to tribunal. Some organisations will not treat drug and alcohol dependence as an illness and in their policies offer support through various help networks. Make sure that you have a unified approach to employees under such circumstances.

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