The Ethics of Drinking at the Workplace

One employee's drinking can raise issues for others.
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For adults, drinking alcohol is a personal lifestyle choice that generally does not warrant consideration by others. But when alcohol is mingled with work it can become a touchy subject that raises an array of ethical issues for those who drink, for their co-workers and for employers. Many of these issues can be avoided with a thorough alcohol policy.

Defining Workplace

    Many people work remotely, conduct business outside of normal work settings and attend events associated with their jobs, all of which provide opportunities to drink, sometimes with little chance of being detected. If employers have alcohol policies that specifically address drinking in these situations, the appropriate handling is obvious. However, a 2010 Society for Human Resource Management poll found over a quarter of organizations did not have a policy to address alcohol consumption at work events. Such omissions in alcohol policies create ethical debates for employees who must decide whether it is wrong to drink if they are engaged in work-related activities but not on company premises.


    Although alcohol policies may prohibit drinking at work, they may not clearly outline rules for reporting others' alcohol consumption. Sometimes employees can smell alcohol on a co-worker or notice changes in his behavior, raising suspicions the colleague has been drinking. Some employees even may choose to drink alcohol in the presence of co-workers they trust. Without guidance, employees may be unsure what to do, questioning whether it is their place to get involved. They might worry that peers will view them as a snitch or accuse them of soiling a colleague's reputation for personal gain.

No Alcohol Policy

    A company has a problem if it does not have an alcohol policy but does not approve of drinking on the job and an employee does so. The employer's initial inclination may be to take disciplinary action, but it's unlikely the employer can punish a worker for breaking a rule that does not exist. It may be possible to take action by addressing associated issues, such as poor performance or poor attendance, but employers must be careful to avoid mingling the issues in a way that makes the employee seem targeted.

Drinking and Safety

    Safety is always a priority and turning a blind eye to the risk of harm is never appropriate. If someone is drinking and working in a capacity where he can hurt himself or others, all employees bear a responsibility to act, even those without supervisory duties. Even if there is no alcohol policy, employers should take action to ensure all employees' safety.

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