How should you deal with an employee who is under the influence of alcohol?

Q: We suspect an employee is coming into work under the influence of alcohol because we can smell it on her breath and she is slurring her words. She has a history of alcoholism and was given a final written warning five months ago for coming into work tipsy, which at the time she admitted to. She was told that any repetition would be considered as gross misconduct.

We have spoken to the employee but she tells us that she is “on the wagon” and would not jeopardise her job. She says that the smell is from cough mixture and mentioned in passing that she also has diabetes. The employee is customer facing and we can’t continue like this. What can we do?

This is a tricky issue. If the employee is under the influence at work then this could be gross misconduct but if her alcoholism outside work/diabetes is affecting her at work then this is a capability/health issue.

The first issue to consider is whether the employee could be classed as “disabled” for the purposes of disability discrimination. If yes, you will be under an obligation not to discriminate against her and to make any reasonable adjustments to her working environment to accommodate her disability. Fortunately alcoholism itself cannot be a disability but any side effects of the alcoholism, for example liver disease, could be.

This employee has also mentioned diabetes and this could, together with any side effects of the alcoholism, or on its own, be a disability. My advice would be to seek medical advice on her conditions (how long they have lasted, the effect it has on her day-to-day life) so that you can evaluate whether she is disabled.

At the same time you could also investigate whether this employee’s alcoholism is still an issue (blood tests may indicate excessive alcohol consumption). The best way to do this, although at a cost, is to refer your employee to an occupational health practitioner. You will need the employee’s consent in writing to do this and for the medical report to be disclosed to you.

Alongside this I would suggest introducing an alcohol at work policy if you do not have one already. It would also be worthwhile purchasing a breathalyser and securing the employee’s consent to take a test regularly or when it may be suspected she is under the influence. An employer cannot force an employee to do this but you can say that if she does not agree you will have to make decision as to whether she is under the influence on the facts available to you. If you have evidence she is under the influence at work you will be entitled to dismiss her for gross misconduct provided you follow the correct disciplinary process.

For advice on this or more general employment law, contact Alison Close on 01625 531676 or email

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