Alcohol-related misconduct: Five mistakes employers should guard against

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  • Employees on duty who are under the influence of alcohol are a major headache for any employer.
  • The employer is obligated to provide a safe working environment for all employees.
  • There are typically five common mistakes employers make when it comes to alcohol-related misconduct.
  • The onus rests on the employer to prove that there is a workplace rule regarding alcohol, that employees are aware of this rule and sanction, and that this rule has indeed been transgressed.
  • A distinction must be drawn between misconduct and incompetence.

Case study: One Monday morning, three of your employees are absent from work again and two are smelling strongly of alcohol. You’ve had enough of this behaviour and decide to summarily dismiss these two workers due to misconduct.

Employees on duty who are under the influence of alcohol are a major headache for any employer. Alcohol use affects an employee’s vision, speech, co-ordination and reaction speed. When employees under the influence of alcohol operate machinery or drive vehicles, they not only pose a high risk to the employer, but also to themselves and their colleagues.

Read more about how to deal with layoffs.

The employer is obligated to provide a safe working environment for all employees. Therefore, this offence must be dealt with in line with the disciplinary code and procedures.

There are typically five common mistakes employers make when it comes to alcohol-related misconduct.

No disciplinary code or alcohol policy

The onus rests on the employer to prove that there is a workplace rule regarding alcohol, that employees are aware of this rule and sanction, and that this rule has indeed been transgressed. For that reason, it is essential to implement a disciplinary code or policy in the workplace outlining the transgressions and providing guidelines on sanctions. This policy may also regulate behaviour outside the workplace if there is a possibility of it having an adverse effect on the employer’s business.

Lack of sufficient investigation

Before formal disciplinary steps are taken, the incident must be thoroughly investigated. The investigation is the most important part of the process, because submitting insufficient evidence could mean a not so favourable outcome for the employer at a disciplinary hearing. A well-conducted investigation will assist the employer in taking an informed decision that is based on facts.

Discipline not properly applied

The purpose of workplace discipline is to adjust and improve behaviour through corrective action, consultations and warnings rather than immediately punishing or dismissing the employee. Dismissal should always be seen as the last option.

Not all disciplinary offences are equally serious and warrant dismissal on the first offence. The employer must consider the gravity of the offence – this is influenced by the employee’s type of work and responsibility, the (possible) consequences of the offence, as well as the impact of the offence on the employee-employer trust relationship – and apply progressive discipline.

Actual reason for the offence

A distinction must be drawn between misconduct and incompetence. If the employee’s behaviour indicates that he or she does not care about rules or consequences, this will amount to misconduct. If the employee is found to have a drinking problem or underlying trauma causing him or her to drink too much, this can be considered incompetence. The actual reason needs to be determined, as different procedures apply for each.

In the heat of the moment

Avoid emotional outbursts and focus on the facts instead. Call in a witness, conduct an alcohol test where possible, record physical symptoms, determine if the employee was on duty and whether the offence occurred outside of working hours and could have caused potential reputational damage, determine if the employee was in control of a vehicle or dangerous equipment, and so forth.

Employers must take note of the difference between someone who smells of alcohol, who is physically drunk, under the influence, using alcohol during working hours and testing positive for alcohol. If the charge is worded incorrectly, it can lead to an acquittal during the disciplinary hearing. – Abrie Bronkhorst, senior legal advisor, LWO Employers Organisation.

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