How to talk to someone you manage about their drinking

Most managers find the subject of alcohol misuse particularly difficult to talk about when faced with concerns about an employee’s drinking. This is particularly true when there is some doubt or uncertainty about the issue - and the most common response is to leave it until the suspicion crops up again.

This caution is understandable and often useful – managers should only act upon solid evidence. However, if there is a culture of drinking in the organisation – during lunch with colleagues, or with clients, then it's important to distinguish between professional conduct that is acceptable and not acceptable in relation to drinking – and this is when it can get messy.



First of all, let's define what we mean by ‘alcohol misuse’ in the context of the workplace – this is any behaviour that is unacceptable and unprofessional at work, due to drinking such as:

Slurring words or being too loud or aggressive / abusiveLooking unkemptNot being able to conduct yourself professionallyNot being able to carry out your duties effectively

If managers observe employees drinking and acting unprofessionally then they have a duty to act. However, in organisations where drinking is part of the working culture and there is an acceptance that it's allowed as long as you don't ‘overdo it’, managers may be hesitant. Some managers may also fear that their own drinking may be called into question if they challenge employees.


Clear ground rules, clearly and widely communicated

Alcohol Health Network argues that having at least some solid ground rules and preferably an alcohol at work policy that clarifies what the rules are around drinking while at work, during lunchtime or after work with clients makes the situation clearer for all concerned. These rules – if clearly communicated and widely promoted - can lay down the expectations and procedures that would be followed if and when there is a reason for a manager to have a conversation about drinking and professional conduct with an employee.


Having the conversation

Prior to having the conversation, managers need to check they are acting on evidence and not just hearsay – they also need to remember that issues such as absenteeism, lack of concentration, looking unkempt or having temper tantrums may be a result of stress, depression or other issues unrelated to drinking. Managers should only discuss concerns about alcohol if they have observed excessive drinking or can smell alcohol on the employee.

They should also be mindful of the sensitivity of the issue – employees are bound to be guarded, defensive and reluctant to have an open conversation about the issue. They may also be genuinely unaware of their behaviour or its impact on others.

Managers should reassure the employee that the conversation is confidential and that your first interest is in supporting them to overcome any difficulties they have.

Try and state openly what you or other managers have observed and ask sensitively if the employee is aware of this. It may be that the employee is simply unaware of their behaviour and alerting them to this is an effective way to prevent any future problems. Again, having a set of ground rules in a policy or code of conduct allows managers to simply point to this and provide some advice.

It may prove helpful to provide employees with the opportunity to privately and confidentially check how much they drink and see for themselves if this fits within the NHS guidelines. You can simply say that it’s easy to lose track of how much we drink and there is a confidential way for employees to privately self-assess their drinking levels. Employees can do this at home or simply on their mobile phone. Independent advice can then be given on how to cut down if needed.

Finally, should it transpire that the drinking is more problematic than first thought, managers should stress that the organisation is duty bound to support the employee and managers can suggest the employee contact their GP or the organisation’s HR team or EAP service if they have one. Ask the employee sensitively if any issues at work or outside of work may be affecting them and if they think their drinking is connected to this – then ask if there is anything the manager can do to help.


Managers are not expected to be counsellors

Managers should remember that they are not expected to be alcohol counsellors or experts in solving alcohol problems – simply being open to the issue and being able to sensitively discuss the issue with employees will demonstrate a responsible approach to drinking in the organisation.

If you would like more advice about this issue or about confidential alcohol checks, training for managers, setting up or reviewing an existing alcohol at work policy, please contact us.

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Posted by Don Shenker on 21st April 2016


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