To Beer Or Not To Beer?

Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP


Shepherd and Wedderburn is a leading, independent Scottish-headquartered UK law firm, with offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, London and Dublin. With a history stretching back to 1768, establishing long-standing relationships of trust, rooted in legal advice and client service of the highest quality, is our hallmark.
Non-alcoholic alternatives are increasingly in the spotlight and their rise in popularity brings with it new considerations for workplaces. We consider the issue of non-alcoholic drinks in the workplace...
UK Employment and HR
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Non-alcoholic alternatives are increasingly in the spotlight and their rise in popularity brings with it new considerations for workplaces. We consider the issue of non-alcoholic drinks in the workplace and how employers might approach this.

We see the adverts, the updated bar menus, and the celebrities promoting their non-alcoholic drinks companies – but are non-alcoholic alternatives really taking off?

It appears so, as studies report increased sales of non-alcoholic beverages, with young adults now their biggest consumers. We are also hearing of employees drinking zero-alcohol products in the workplace, leaving employers unsure of how best to respond. With that in mind, some employers are considering their approach to employees consuming non-alcoholic drinks during working hours or breaks.

While there is no general law in the UK prohibiting alcoholic drinks at work, it is widely understood and accepted that alcohol within the workplace is a no-go. Many employers adopt specific policies on this, particularly in industries where health and safety are of greater concern, citing bad behaviour, incapacity for work, and reputational risks as employment concerns.

Whether there are specific policies on alcohol in the workplace or not, employers can usually handle these issues through their disciplinary or capability procedures. Alternatively, where an employee's drinking is linked to alcoholism, employers might first look to their sickness procedures with a view to helping the individual.

The same issues do not necessarily apply to non-alcoholic drinks. Although some non-alcoholic alternatives still contain low levels of alcohol, it is questionable how likely these are to impact on employee behaviour or to pose a risk to the health and safety of the relevant employee and others.

As it is, there are many fruits and fruit juices containing low levels of naturally occurring alcohol; energy/ fizzy drinks with large amounts of caffeine and sugar; and, not least, the daily doses of coffee fuelling the nation's workforces, with no suggestion that these drinks or foods should be restricted by employers.

So why is it then that the topic of "alcohol-free" beer, wine, and spirits in the workplace sparks debate and feels wrong to some, while others see no issue with it? The key issues seem to centre around the notion and perception of a colleague sitting at their desk and sipping from a beer bottle; opening a can of gin and tonic in the canteen; or appearing on video calls with a glass of wine in hand.

While these drinks may have no greater or lesser effect than others that are readily consumed in the workplace, there is something about the packaging and branding that we all recognise and associate with social settings and relaxation, with many feeling that these are simply not appropriate or conducive to the working environment. Further, there is real concern about the potential reputational damage if clients or customers see an employee drinking what looks like an alcoholic drink and the subsequent message that it sends about the business.

Can an employer restrict the consumption of non-alcoholic alternatives in the workplace?

Yes, an employer could take the view that it is unacceptable in a work setting and adopt a policy limiting employees from consuming such beverages during working hours.

Employers generally put policies in place where there is a legal requirement to do so or if there are strong legal, ethical, or conduct reasons that justify their approach. Policies can help to set clear expectations of behaviour and support an employer's decision to take disciplinary action where employee conduct falls below the expected standards.

Does an employer need to adopt a policy?

Not necessarily. A policy might not be needed at all, particularly if a business is not experiencing any issues with its employees in the workplace in relation to non-alcoholic drinks. Like many employee issues, it can often depend on the circumstances and the context in each case, which can make the introduction of a strict prohibition problematic.

The practicalities of introducing a policy may be complex and an employer considering this would need to give careful thought to the details, homing in on the issue that they are trying to address:

  • How will non-alcoholic drinks be defined?
  • If the issue is one of perception, then is the policy intended to target only drinks that look like their alcoholic equivalent, or will the policy apply more widely to include non-alcoholic alternatives in nondescript packaging (and if so, how would that be policed)?
  • Will the policy treat the consumption of zero- and low-alcohol drinks in the same way?
  • If the concern is around employee behaviour due to low levels of alcohol present, how will the policy differentiate between other foods or drinks which contain low levels of alcohol, or drinks containing high levels of caffeine and sugar?

A policy on this topic is likely to cause a difference of opinion among staff. There is also the risk of policy overload if an employer tries to put in place a policy for every possible eventuality. Thought should therefore be given to the wider employee relation and reputational risks of introducing such a policy, and an employer might want to carry out a risk assessment and consider consulting with relevant stakeholders before a policy is introduced.

If an incident arises, the absence of a specific policy does not prevent an employer from taking appropriate action. Employers can still refer to usual disciplinary rules and procedures in these cases and while disciplinary rules often list examples of types of misconduct, this is usually expressed to be illustrative only and not intended to be exhaustive. However, as a part of any decision process, an employer should always consider whether the employee was (or ought reasonably to have been) aware of the standards expected of them.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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