Can you drink alcohol during work hours?

Drinking during work hours remains a grey area in employment law.
Drinking during work hours remains a grey area in employment law. iStock.

Do you know your company’s policy on drinking during work hours? If not, you may want to have a look at your employee handbook.

A recent Ontario court case examined the issue whether having a bit of wine during a lunch break is cause to fire an employee.

In Volchoff v. Wright Auto Sales Inc., Larry Volchoff was employed by the Cambridge, Ont., location as a manager for nearly two years and was fired due to claims that he was under the influence of alcohol at work on several occasions.

During his employment he was required to attend regular managers’ meetings at the Wright Waterloo office on Wednesdays at around 3:00 p.m. Volchoff freely admitted that before the meetings, he had a regular practice of stopping off at a restaurant for lunch and a glass of wine.

Four months before he was fired, management spoke to Volchoff during one of the meetings. The managers told him he had to be responsible with alcohol at work but they didn’t tell him that he had to stop.

After that, he was called in for a few more meetings, where management claimed a customer and employees complained about his alleged alcohol consumption and at the last meeting he was terminated without notice.

The court didn’t agree with his firing for several reasons.

Volchoff’s one glass of wine at lunch was not enough to be called misconduct. Misconduct can only be used to fire an employee if it is severe enough to lead to a breakdown of the employment relationship.

The judge also found that staff at the Cambridge office didn't really complain about Volchoff's alleged alcohol consumption. Rather employee complaints were related to Volchoff changing Internet leads to increase his sales to the possible disadvantage of other sales staff.

Finally, Wright’s zero tolerance policy on alcohol was not added to the employee handbook until after Volchoff was fired. This zero tolerance policy was also not a part of Volchoff’s employment contract, the court found. He was also never warned that his job was at risk.

So what is the law on drinking during work hours?

Drinking during work hours remains a grey area in employment law. Whether or not you can be dismissed if you have a little alcohol during lunch or before work depends on the specific circumstances of each case. People who find themselves in such situations should contact an employment lawyer.

At any rate, if an employer has a zero tolerance policy for alcohol during work hours, then this should be noted somewhere in the employee handbook and/or employment contract as well as made clear to workers.

Based on the specific facts in this case, the court found that Volchoff’s firing wasn’t justified and he was awarded five months’ notice and damages in the amount of $48,557.68.

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