Establishing the Right Policy for Staff Drinking

By Diane Medina

This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of The New Brewera bi-monthly journal published by the Brewers Association.

For many job hunters, a brewery is generally thought of as an awesome place to work. Who wouldn’t want a gig where a definite perk of the job is trying innovative new brews?

But for brewery employers, this excitement can be a double-edged sword. Brewery owners certainly want their staff to obtain a significant wealth of product knowledge to be effective in their roles, such as suggesting recommendations for inquiring customers. Many breweries offer shift beers, and some aspects of brewery jobs require tasting beer as part of everyday duties. Yet there is an inherent risk of employees becoming impaired on the brewery premises in the process. How do employers strike that fine balance between training their employees and preventing overconsumption of alcohol on the job?

Set Clear Guidelines

According to Matt Johnson, brewmaster of brewery operations for Karl Strauss Brewing Company, the best course of action is to set parameters based on each employee’s job duty. This means implementing a company policy that establishes clear guidelines for responsible alcohol consumption, whether on- or off-duty.

We have to be leaders in responsible drinking.

“We have to be leaders in responsible drinking,” Johnson said. “It reflects on us as an industry and we have to set the example.”

Karl Strauss’s policy on employee drinking was originally written in 1992 and has evolved over the last 26 years. It’s important for the policy to be as specific as possible, said Johnson. “With a zero-tolerance policy for employees operating company vehicles, don’t expect people to know the definition of a vehicle.”

Each employee regardless of role should be provided with a copy of the policy. The best practice is to get employee signatures acknowledging that they have read and understood the policy. Employees should be provided with any updates and addendums.

Make It Official

From a legal perspective, all breweries should have a written employee handbook that includes the company drinking policy. Simply having a generic, cookie-cutter set of regulations that is not specific to the brewing industry will not be effective when it comes to legal situations that may arise when alcohol is involved. Brewery-specific policies could include ordering rideshare transportation for employees who have overconsumed to get home after a shift.

“Like all other employers, a brewery should maintain a written policy addressing on-duty alcohol consumption, and clarify which class of employees are permitted to drink while on the clock; the criteria permitting on-the-job drinking should be based on employees’ essential job functions,” maintains employment attorney Adriana Cara. “For example, there is no doubt that a taster’s responsibilities would reasonably require alcohol consumption. An effective policy will also limit how much an employee may imbibe while on duty (e.g., by specifying the number of ounces that are permissible per shift). Further, drinking to the point of impairment should be prohibited, regardless of position.”

An official employee policy is the first line of defense to protect your employees, your bottom line, and your brand image. It is also important for insurability. Instituting a brewery policy for alcohol consumption also instills a certain level of responsibility in brewery employees.

John Hoefer, founder of the Brewery Insurance Program, said that each brewery should establish hard and fast rules when it comes to employees imbibing at work. “Some insurance carriers will ask if there is an employee policy [when it comes to drinking],” he said.

In Hoefer’s experience, worker’s compensation policies typically include drug and alcohol testing for job-related injuries. If an employee was drinking recreationally before coming to work or on their lunch break and then gets hurt, for example, it is likely that the claim won’t be covered. Without a firm policy, the brewery could potentially be exposed to civil liability for the employee’s injury. The situation could also result in a canceled policy by the carrier, or skyrocketing premiums.

Consider the Customer Perspective

Another important aspect to an employee drinking policy is that of the customer’s perspective, because seeing a brewery employee overconsume on the premises can cause confusion and create a negative perception of customer service. Brewpub owners and operators should be aware of how their customers view employees drinking, especially right after a shift has ended. For this reason, many brewpubs’ policies, such as at Ladyface Ale Companie, require their employees to change out of uniform before ordering shift beers. There may be consumption quantity limitations or even restrictions of where they may sit after a shift, such as not occupying a limited seat at the bar at the expense of a paying guest.

Another requirement is for employees to conduct themselves as guests or—better yet—as responsible consumers and brand ambassadors even when visiting other beer establishments. Some breweries think it’s important that customers see employees enjoying their beer, but in a responsible and flattering manner. For this reason, a workplace alcohol consumption policy should state how employees are to act and dress for on-duty as well as off-duty consumption.

Overconsumption by an employee is never a comfortable situation to address. It can take a toll on the rest of the staff and is a potential health and safety issue from both a personal and business standpoint. Review or implement your brewery’s alcohol consumption policy, make sure it is effectively communicated to your employees, and update it on a regular basis as your company evolves.

Diane Medina, an attorney at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, focuses her practice on helping clients in the beer, wine, and spirits industries, including small craft breweries. She is a legal resource for compliance under the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.