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Ask Aliya: Happy Hour Policies

“Ask Aliya” is a column for lawyers who are the first legal hire at their company and need advice from an in-house lawyer who has been there before. Aliya Ramji was the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc., a network used by more than one million healthcare professionals to share cases and collaborate. She is now a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. To have your legal questions for startups answered, email [email protected] with "Ask Aliya" in the subject line.

Dear Aliya,

Our company is considering having weekly happy hours or even installing a beer tap to encourage a casual and collaborative workplace. But how do we clarify that work still comes first and that we're not encouraging excessive drinking?

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun    

Dear Kids Just Wanna Have Fun,

Investing in creating a casual and collaborative workplace is an important part of building a successful work culture. Engaging employees in a laid-back environment where the lines between work and play are blurred is one direction in which modern workplaces are going. Bean bag chairs, table tennis, and free-flowing alcohol are some of the ways in which this is being done. However, it is important to be mindful of the implications of serving alcohol in a workplace setting.

One such implication is excluding certain groups such as those with disabilities, both physical and mental health (i.e., addiction) related, or groups whose faith prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Collaboration cannot be achieved if certain employees are excluded. To ensure inclusivity, the focus should be on the team-bonding aspect of social events, as opposed to the alcohol itself. This can be achieved by including non-alcoholic beverages, and by positioning such events as weekly socials, rather than happy hours. Moreover, consider also providing snacks. In my workplaces, we have always had weekly food themes or drinks and chips so as to be as open as possible.

Regardless of the name, all work sanctioned events involving alcohol should have some clearly defined rules. The most common method used by employers to ensure boundaries for such events is a workplace policy around alcohol consumption that encourages responsibility. A workplace alcohol policy typically encompasses factors including when alcohol is offered, what types of beverages that may be served, whether an employee may return to work after consuming alcohol, and most importantly, the clear notion that participation is completely voluntary and will not have ANY ramifications on an employee’s prospect for advancement.

The workplace policy can also include disciplinary options for employees violating the company’s alcohol policy. Internal policy does not override legislative provisions around matters such as age, thus it is important to be aware of the age of the employees before allowing them to drink. The company must also consider providing alternative means of transportation for its employees given its liability under the employment or social host liability laws, to avoid intoxicated individuals from injuring themselves.

Companies that offer alcohol should also allocate resources to better inform their employees of the consequences of excessive drinking and to help them identify potential drinking problems. This may be included in your employee benefits package or other similar resources. You may also consider occasionally having a representative from your Employee Assistance Program available to ensure that employees have a familiar face to speak to if necessary.

Finally, enhancing the collaborative spirit within your company is not limited to serving alcohol. Consider exploring other team building options such as planning outdoor activities and sports. This approach can be more inclusive to employees who don’t consume alcohol. Whichever route you choose, remember to be mindful of your entire team to ensure they are all comfortable and can enjoy the experience.

Good luck!


About the Author

Aliya RamjiAliya Ramji was previously the director of legal and business strategy for Figure 1 Inc. Presently, she is a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, where she offers guidance on in-house law and startup businesses. She also was a 2016 recipient of ACC’s Top 10 30-Somethings.

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