Picture this: It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and you have an office full of employees itching to power down and head home. Offering your staff their first round before they officially start their weekend might seem like a good way to boost morale and encourage socialization.
But, according to the experts, beer cart Friday can easily turn into lawsuit Monday.
The legal concerns (and company’s responsibility)
According to Patrizia Piccolo, a partner with employment law firm Rubin Thomlinson, there are many issues that can arise from allowing employees to drink at work. Impaired judgement, for example, could lead to detrimental conversations, or worse, injuries in the workplace.
“What we tend to see quite a lot is sexual harassment, off-colour jokes, or employees getting into violent or physical altercations,” says Piccolo. “From an employer perspective, you need to realize that you can be liable for acts of your management team and of employees in the workplace and in the system.”
In fact, an employer’s responsibility extends beyond the office walls, should an employee get into any legal trouble as a result of the alcohol they’ve consumed on the premises.
Rick Hackett, a professor of human resources and management with McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, also believes beer cart Fridays are risky proposition, especially if you expect your employees to continue responding to clients and suppliers while at the workplace.
“Research shows that alcohol consumption, even in small amounts, affects judgement and problem solving skills,” he says. “If you’re counting on those skills to contribute to productivity, having beer isn’t conducive to doing that.”
Hackett adds that while encouraging socialization may be the end goal for beer cart Fridays, the practice could end up alienating staff who are opposed to drinking either for cultural or religious reasons. “And what about recovering alcoholics? That puts them in a really precarious position,” he says.
Still want the beer cart? Put some policies in place.
Piccolo recommends that employers talk to their HR department and legal team to determine if drinking on the job is even a fit for company culture – is it worth the potential risks associated with serving alcohol to employees?
But should you decide the pros outweigh the cons, the first priority should making sure there are policies in place that deal with alcohol consumption during work hours. “Remind employees if you’re heading into these events that normal workplace standards or conduct remain in full force at all times – it’s not a free fall,” says Piccolo.
The other big consideration, says Piccolo, is making sure that everyone who consumes alcohol is of legal drinking age – and that there is food on hand and non-alcoholic beverages available. It’s also important to limit the number of drinks that are consumed per person. “Some employers have instituted drink tickets or have a limited number of drinks actually available,” says Piccolo.
Finally, you’ll want to monitor people as they leave, perhaps offering taxi chits so that staff aren’t getting behind the wheel.
…or avoid an “unnecessary risk” altogether
Piccolo says that despite every effort, employees are prone to misbehaving when alcohol is involved. Hackett agrees, saying he’d be surprised if the beer cart trend ever really takes over.
“I don’t see the benefits – it brings people together in a casual and more informal environment, breaks the ice, and maybe loosens employees up and enhances comradery, but you can do all those things without having alcohol present,” he says. “The alcohol seems to be introducing an unnecessary risk to the equation.”