Sober Employment: Creating An Alcohol Use Policy

Allowing alcohol consumption on the job or in a workplace creates potential liability for any business, but it's hard in the world of brewing, and that risk comes with the territory. Safeguard your business and employees by creating an alcohol-use policy.

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Imagine, as a brewery owner or manager, you are being sued because one of your employees consumed too much alcohol at work and is being accused of sexual harassment by another employee. You are being deposed. There are two scenarios:

Scenario 1

Victim’s Attorney: Mr. Owner, you did not have a policy prohibiting beer consumption on the job, correct?
You: Yes.
Victim’s Attorney: You never had any written policy telling your employees not to abuse alcohol on the job, right?
You: Yes.
Victim’s Attorney: You are aware that drinking beer impairs people’s judgment, right?
You: I guess.
Victim’s Attorney: So, you knew drinking beer impairs people’s judgment, but you did not think you should have a policy against unreasonable alcohol use?

Scenario 2

Victim’s Attorney: Mr. Owner, you did not have a policy prohibiting alcohol use on the job, correct?
You: I did have a policy. It restricted beer consumption to limited, reasonable tasting for educational purposes only.
Victim’s Attorney: But you are aware that alcohol use impairs people’s judgment, right?
You: Our policy prohibits consuming an amount of alcohol that impairs judgment.
Victim’s Attorney: You don’t think it’s a problem that your employees could drink beer on the job?
You: No, I do think that is a potential problem. That is why we have a policy allowing limited reasonable use only.

Both scenarios are obviously a bit overdone, but the point remains the same—breweries and taprooms should have a policy defining the acceptable level of alcohol consumption on the job. There are at least three reasons for this: clear guidance to employees about beer consumption, protection for your employees, and protection for your company.


Clear Guidance

First, an alcohol-consumption policy will provide clear guidance to employees about the allowable level of beer consumption. If you do not give employees a guide about their expected conduct, then it is more difficult for them to understand how they should act and harder for you to discipline them if and when they cross the line.

Protection for Employees

Second, an alcohol-consumption policy protects your employees. Unreasonable levels of beer consumption may lead to instances of harassment, belligerence, or unlawful conduct that hurts your other employees.

Protection for Your Company

Third, an alcohol-consumption policy addressing reasonable beer consumption protects your company. Employee misconduct is bound to happen. But if that misconduct is fueled by too much beer, breweries must be able to show claimants and a jury, if necessary, that they understood the dangers of unreasonable alcohol use and took sincere steps to prevent unreasonable use and the conduct that may flow from it. Failing to do so could result in liability for wrongful conduct and open the door to substantial punitive damages. After all, as reflected in the hypothetical deposition testimony above, it is not surprising that employees at breweries may consume beer and that doing so may lead to wrongful conduct.

Reasonable Policy

So what should a reasonable alcohol-use policy look like? Some companies may be able to prohibit all alcohol consumption on the job for some types of employees. For example, the employees who manage the taproom inventory may not need to drink any beer on the job. It is highly recommended that beer consumption on the job be prohibited for types of employees who do not need to drink beer as part of the job.

Next, for employees who are required or expected to drink beer on the job—brewers or bar tenders who sell your products, for example—breweries should implement a policy that allows only limited, reasonable alcohol consumption and defines that where possible. Here is an example policy:

“In order to stay up-to-date on the company’s products, employees may reasonably consume the company’s beer products. Reasonable consumption means limited samples for educational purposes only.”

Reasonable alcohol use may also be defined by a certain amount—no more than one beer per eight-hour shift, for example—or in different ways. But ignoring the issue is not an option. Breweries without a policy that addresses beer consumption are putting their employees and business at risk. If you do not yet have such a policy, contact your attorney to help you design one that fits your specific operation and types of employees.