How would you feel if your employees were sat in the kitchen at lunchtime drinking non-alcoholic beer or pouring themselves an alcohol-free glass of Merlot in a Zoom meeting? Would you give it the green light? From low-alcohol beer to wines and spirits, the alcohol-free market has certainly boomed in recent years, but – is this culture of drinking during work the next office happy hour trend?
In this article, we look at the legal position on consuming beverages free of alcohol at work and the importance of setting clear standards of conduct in the workplace.
What Exactly is ‘Alcohol-Free’?
Let’s start by clarifying what “alcohol-free” means. According to drinkaware.co.uk, there are three categories:
- Alcohol-free. Drinks containing no more than 0.05% alcohol by volume (ABV)
- De-alcoholised. Drinks containing no more than 0.5% ABV (these drinks are still marketed in the UK as ‘alcohol-free’)
- Low alcohol. Drinks containing no more than 1.2% ABV
To put this in perspective, let’s look at some of the leading brand-name alcohol-free versions compared with their alcohol-containing counterparts:
- Heineken 0.0% contains no more than 0.05% ABV; regular Heineken contains 5% ABV.
- Gordon’s Alcohol-Free Spirit contains 0.0% ABV; Gordon’s Special Dry London Gin contains 37.5% ABV.
- McGuigan Zero Shiraz contains 0.05% ABV. McGuigan Black Label Shiraz contains 12.5% ABV.
Please note: These drinks are not the same as ‘non-alcoholic’ drinks such as soft drinks, tea, or coffee and cannot be purchased by persons under the age of 18!
Gross Misconduct Over Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer at Work?
“I have a consumption of alcohol in the workplace policy. If an employee were found to be drinking an alcohol-free beer containing 0.5%, would this be gross misconduct?”.
This is where employers need to consider why they have workplace alcohol policies like this.
The reason you have a consumption of alcohol in the workplace policy is for safety – because of the potential impact it could have on someone’s capacity to make decisions, reaction times, and so on.
For example, someone using machinery or driving could cause serious injury or death to themselves or others if they are under the influence of drugs or have been drinking during work hours. Hence, it’s a rule primarily designed to keep people safe, and when breached, it is likely to amount to an allegation of gross misconduct.
But what about the fact that alcohol-free drinks do contain some alcohol?
Here’s where a bit of science comes in…
In 2012, German researchers looked at blood alcohol content after consuming alcohol-free beers. Participants were asked to abstain from drinking for 5 days and then consume 1.5L of alcohol-free beer (0.4% ABV) in one hour—that’s a lot of beer! They found that after this period, the blood alcohol level of the participants was 0.0056%. To put this in perspective, the drink-drive limit in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is 0.08% (0.05% in Scotland).
So, it would appear that someone would have to consume an extreme amount of alcohol-free beer to become impaired by the low levels of alcohol.
To make things more intriguing, a glass of apple juice can contain as much as 0.6% alcohol, and a ripe banana could contain 0.02%. This is why, in the same way that vaping at work is not a breach of anti-smoking laws, consuming a can of alcohol-free beer is not the same as downing a double brandy.
Therefore, if the employer did dismiss an employee for drinking alcohol at work on the grounds of gross misconduct for this reason, they find themselves in hot water and with a potentially unfair dismissal.
Should Employers Embrace Alcohol-Free Drinks?
Not necessarily. Employers set the standard when it comes to the behaviours they expect from their staff.
There are a lot of reasons why an employer would not want their staff to consume alcohol-free wine spirits or non-alcoholic beer at work, for example:
If you were to look for alcohol-free beverages in your local supermarket, you wouldn’t find them with the orange squash; instead, they are sold alongside their alcohol-containing counterparts, and they look like their alcohol-containing counterparts.
At a glance, a bottle of alcohol-free beer will look like regular beer; therefore, if you were driving down the motorway, swigging from a can of Becks Blue, don’t be surprised if the police pull you over. Why? Because it looks like you’re drinking.
How much more difficult would it be for employers to spot the difference between an employee drinking non-alcoholic beer and the real thing? Could you spot the difference?
For those who drink alcohol, cracking open a can of beer or pouring a glass of wine is synonymous with winding down after a tough day or socialising. In other words, it is akin to relaxation, not work.
Drinking non-alcoholic beer at work may not be breaking the rules, but it may not be conducive to a work mindset, which could be bad news for productivity.
Likewise, imagine if a client were to visit and see your employees drinking cans of alcohol-free Guinness at their desks or during a meeting. Would you be comfortable with that? What would your perception be if you visited your GP surgery only to see the reception staff drinking cans of alcohol-free gin and tonic?
It boils down to the professional image you want to project, and you, the employer, are responsible for setting that standard and maintaining it.
Do Workplace Alcohol Policies Need an Update?
In the same way that many smoking policies prohibit vaping at work, employers may want to extend their rules and procedures to prohibit the consumption of alcohol-free beverages during working hours.
However, whereas smoking or vaping is something employees are likely to do during working hours, the likelihood of employees popping a cork on some alcohol-free prosecco at their desks is not quite as likely.
That said, the growing trend for alcohol-free beverages means this is something employers should be mindful of, especially with more people continuing to work from home, where the work environment tends to be more relaxed and usual office etiquette doesn’t apply.
Employers should continue to keep their workplace alcohol policies, rules and procedures under review. This is particularly relevant to rules governing employee conduct to ensure that they meet the changing needs of the business and the changes and trends on a wider societal level.
Your conduct rules and procedures rely on effective management and implementation. As always, Avensure’s experts are here to provide you with advice and support on managing employee misconduct as well as all aspects of HR and employment law.
For support, please contact our employment team. Simply click here: Avensure Contact!