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Companies often struggle to set regulations around their workers’ alcohol and drug usage. This is especially true for startups and tech organisations who provide alcohol on-site during work hours and do not consider drug usage to be inherently negative for company or productivity.

Everything You Need to Know About Workplace Drugs and AlcoholAs a San Francisco-based employment attorney, I’ve seen it all, from founders wanting to encourage LSD use among marketing employees (pro tip: probably not the best idea from a liability standpoint) to CEOs wanting to ensure that all employees are drug tested on a regular basis and that they don’t consume alcohol at company events.

When designing their alcohol and drug-related employment practises, businesses should keep the following in mind:

1) Strike a balance between the desired business culture and the liability concerns.

Sure, you can let your workers drink a beer with lunch and do anything they want in their leisure time as long as they bring their A-game to work. However, a drug and alcohol policy that particularly allows for intoxication at work may be detrimental to the firm. What if, for example, an employee becomes inebriated at a work function and hits another employee? This occurred to one of my clients, and it ended up costing the firm a lot of money to resolve.

On the other hand, if your organisation prohibits all alcohol and drug usage, you may face responsibility, especially if your policy-in-practice varies from the stated one. An example is a corporation that clearly prohibits any alcohol or drug usage at work in its employee handbook, but frequently reimburses staff for beverages bought over lunch while at business meetings with clients and has alcohol at company-sponsored events. Regardless of whether you have a policy in place to shield your liabilities, the business’s actions might overrule the stated policy, placing the firm at danger.
Alcohol and drug policies should be written with these and other forms of “what ifs” in mind. The desire for a certain business culture should be considered against the risk that these events entail.

2) Consider prescribing limitations for prescription drugs.

I often come across employee drug and alcohol policies that entirely exclude the usage of prescribed drugs. Prescription medicines, like any other drugs or alcohol, may, nevertheless, impair an employee’s ability to operate appropriately at work. If a corporation has no policy prohibiting prescription drug usage at work and an employee arrives at work while under the influence of prescription medications and is involved in an accident, the employer may be held accountable and/or obliged to defend a lawsuit brought by the employee and any accident victims.

Employers are frequently best served by adopting alcohol and drug policies that explicitly indicate that workers are not permitted to work while under the influence of any substance that impairs the employee’s ability to execute their job obligations. The policy should also specify clearly that this applies not just to alcohol and illicit substances, but also to prescribed medications.
Because prescription drugs are usually associated with illness, employers without HR teams should consult with an employment attorney or HR professional for assistance with specific cases involving employees who want to work but are on prescription medication that may impair their ability to perform their job duties.

3) While marijuana laws are evolving, your company’s stance is unlikely to change.

Marijuana decriminalisation, legalisation, and medical usage are becoming more widespread throughout the nation. Many businesses ask me how altering marijuana laws influence their alcohol and drug-related policies, and the answer is that employers do not need to amend their policies, even with these new regulations in effect.

Why? Because marijuana users are not a protected class, even if they consume it for therapeutic reasons. Employers typically have the ability to fire workers who use marijuana after hours or on weekends.

It may seem unreasonable for a company to prohibit workers from using marijuana or other narcotics even in their spare time, yet such a policy may make sense for certain sorts of employees. Marijuana is not like alcohol in that it remains in a person’s system for weeks (or even months) after a single usage.
If your employment requires you to drive a truck and you only use marijuana in your spare time, but you are involved in an automobile accident at work, you may be drug tested and have no means of demonstrating that you were not under the influence at the time of the collision. Thus, if the business had a strong policy barring drug usage even after hours for workers, the employer would be insulating itself from responsibility, and the corporation may seek to use this policy as a shield against any liabilities.

Employers that want to establish such a policy, however, should consult with an employment attorney or HR practitioner. You’ll want to be sure that your policy does not discriminate against workers who may need marijuana for medical reasons.

4) Create a realistic alcohol-use policy.

If you know your firm will allow employees to consume alcohol on work time, make sure you have a policy in place that limits your responsibility. This is often best accomplished through a sensible alcohol-use employee policy that acknowledges that employees may be permitted to drink on company premises/at company events on occasion, but that employees are still required to abide by the company’s policies and to behave in accordance with usual business standards.
It is critical not just to have a policy like this established, but also to enforce it — for example, if a manager observes an inebriated (or any other) employee behaving badly and contrary to the company’s business standards during a company-sponsored event, the person should be asked to leave.

The Bottom Line

Many businesses, particularly startups and technology firms, strive to foster a joyful and progressive work atmosphere. While this mentality works well for many businesses, organisations should, at the absolute least, ensure that their drug and alcohol policy compels workers to maintain professional behaviour while at work and sets out the repercussions if they do not.