While some industries strictly prohibit drinking on the job (and with good reason — we’re looking at you, transportation industry), some seem to encourage it.

Startups, advertising and tech companies are a few types of organizations not only more likely to have lax alcohol policies, but to make alcohol available for employees during the work day. In Chicago alone, 184 startups explicitly market beer-on-tap as an employee perk.

While having a drink at the office may improve employee morale or foster a sense of community between coworkers, your organization should weigh the potential repercussions of encouraging a drinking culture in your office.

The Risks of Letting Employees Drink at the Office

Drinking at work can be a fun and stress-reducing activity for some of your staff, but it comes along with a lot of risks.

Bad Employee Behavior
For some people, it doesn’t take much alcohol to go from a mild-manner professional to an unseemly drunk.

Bad behavior employee that results from drinking on the job should be a top concern for HR professionals. From inappropriate language and offensive jokes to sexual harassment and physical altercations, don’t be surprised if drinking on the job results in the same behavior you may find at a bar.

Not all of your employees will behave poorly after the office beer cart rolls around. However, one incident stemming from a beer supplied by your organization could result in you needing to reprimand or even terminate an employee — not to mention any legal trouble that could be caused.

Legal Consequences for Your Company
We hope it goes without saying, but first and foremost you should make sure there aren’t any laws prohibiting on-the-job alcohol consumption for your industry or specific positions at your organization. For example, if you have employees who drive a delivery truck, they can’t participate in your office happy hour before making deliveries.

Another legal consideration is whether social host liability laws apply in your area. Social host liability laws hold social hosts liable for alcohol-related deaths and injuries that result from a person being encouraged or allowed to drink excessively. These laws could consider an employer who supplied too many drinks to an employee who then killed someone in a car accident while driving home from the office, responsible.

Social host liability laws apply to guests of all ages exist in the following states:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Discomfort for Non-Drinkers
Even if your employees maintain their professionalism while drinking at work, your workday happy hour may sour some of your staff’s moods.

Drinking on the job — when employees drink and behave responsibly — can be a great opportunity for colleagues to bond.

But what about those who don’t drink?

Employees who don’t drink may feel excluded from these opportunities to get to know their colleagues in a more relaxed setting. Sometimes, they may even feel their inability to take part in company drinking can prevent them from building the relationships that can advance their career.

Additionally, you may have employees working hard to stay sober as they fight alcohol addiction. Your office beer tap may make it incredibly difficult for these people to maintain sobriety. If alcoholic addiction is an issue for any of your employees, consider that they may find employment elsewhere to avoid relapsing.

Of course, there are other reasons why your employees may not drink, like being on medication that doesn’t allow them to consume alcohol, being pregnant or having religious beliefs that prohibit drinking.

It doesn’t matter why an employee would choose not to drink. If your office drinking culture excludes some employees, makes them feel uncomfortable or puts them in harm’s way, it will harm the morale of at least some of your employees.

If alcohol-fueled events are frequent at your organization, consider hosting additional, alcohol-free social events. These can give non-drinkers an opportunity to get to know their colleagues in an environment where everyone is sober.

How Can Employers Reduce Liability When Employees Drink at Work?

If you still want to allow drinking on the job, but want to reduce the chances it turns into more of a headache than it’s worth, consider taking the following steps:

  1. Communicate All Office Drinking Rules Clearly and Frequently
    Make sure your employees know what is and isn’t ok when it comes to alcohol consumption at work. Outline what actions will be taken against employees who violate rules. In addition to including this in your employee handbook, consider posting signs in the office and occasionally sending an email reminding all employees of alcohol policies.
  2. Set Limits on When and How Much Employees Can Drink
    Make your office happy hour an actual hour. For example, designate 4pm – 5pm as the only acceptable times for employees to be drinking at work. If they want to continue drinking after 5pm, they’ll need to head somewhere else.
  3. Provide Food
    It’s the end of the day, and it’s been hours since lunch. Your team is probably drinking on an empty stomach and feeling the effects of even a single beer quicker than normal. Provide some snacks for them to munch on while sipping their drinks to help slow down their buzz.
  4. Have Non-Alcoholic Options for Non-Drinkers
    Consider having soda, sparkling water, coffee and/or tea available during your happy hours so that non-drinkers can enjoy a beverage along with their drinking colleagues.
  5. Make Sure Your Employees Get Home Safely
    We all want our staff to get home safely, so don’t let your employees get behind the wheel after drinking. Allow your employees to expense a rideshare or cab ride home if they’ve been drinking to avoid dangerous and deadly accidents.
  6. Check Your Company’s Insurance Policy
    Your commercial general liability insurance may cover host liquor liability. This insurance covers businesses who have incidental exposure to alcohol (as opposed to a business, like a bar, that sells alcohol). If your insurance doesn’t protect your organization from liabilities related to alcohol consumption, talk to your insurance provider about getting appropriate coverage.

While it’s not impossible to create a safer and more responsible drinking culture at your office, it requires effort and will never be without risk. Whether drinking at your office is a rare occasion or you have a keg available every day, it’s your responsibility to make sure your employees’ consumption won’t come at the cost of anyone’s safety, morale or career.