At this time, the law does not require UK employers to develop or implement policies to control alcohol and drug use among workers. Legal requirements are limited, in most cases, to ensuring a safe environment for workers, customers and other visitors. Yet in the absence of a legal requirement, employers such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Marks & Spencer’s have taken it upon themselves to develop policies. They provide an example that every employer should at least consider following.

For the purposes of clarification, drug and alcohol policies are those guidelines and rules that determine how an employer will respond to the issues of alcohol and drug use that affect the workplace. Procedures are the tools put in place to implement the policies. This is an important distinction for one primary reason: no drug or alcohol policy will be of any use if procedures are not put in place to achieve implementation.

Developing Policies

Developing policies to deal with alcohol and drug use can be a difficult task. It may require the input of a full range of staff representatives as well as outside legal counsel and health and well-being experts. Any policies an employer does develop should be reviewed by legal experts for compliance with the law. Furthermore, drug and alcohol policies should cover the following areas:

  • Objectives – The objectives of a workplace drug and alcohol policy will address the reasons for implementation and to whom it applies. In a best-case scenario, policies are developed and applied equally for all classes of work and among all staff.
  • Accountability – The accountability component establishes who is responsible for implementing workplace policies, who has the authority to enforce them, and which staff members (if not all) are directly accountable to them.
  • Rules – Rules are the most important part of a workplace drug and alcohol policy because these establish what is, and is not, allowed by the employer. The temptation to avoid is to set up a system of rules so complex that these are impossible to implement and enforce.
  • Discipline – In order for the enforcement of rules to be effective, disciplinary measures need to be put in place. This section of the policy outlines what actions will be taken in response to rule violations.
  • Confidentiality – The purpose of any workplace drug and alcohol policy is the protection of both the organisation and its workers. Therefore, worker confidentiality must be maintained. Policies should detail how worker information will be safeguarded – including any information gleaned from drug and alcohol testing.
  • Information – Policies should include a commitment from the employer to provide as much information as possible to workers who need help with a drug or alcohol problem. In this way, the employer becomes an advocate for the troubled employee.
  • Help – Where practical, policies can also establish guidelines by which employers can assist workers in getting the help they need. They may provide treatment referrals, for example, or other types of direct and indirect support.

Employers should understand that once policies are developed, they are not set in stone. They can always be adjusted in the future as needed. Furthermore, a lack of experience is no reason to delay policy development and implementation. It is better to establish less-than-perfect policies that can be adjusted than to not do anything at all.

Procedure Implementation

Developing a workplace drug and alcohol policy is one thing, developing practical strategies for implantation is another. The main challenge here is to create procedures that accomplish the goals of the policy without infringing on individual rights or creating a hostile environment for employees. Establishing procedures is an area in which the experience of others can be very helpful. Employers should not be afraid to ask for help from outside the organisation.

Procedures should be developed to cover the following areas:

  • Reporting – Workers need a mechanism in place that allows them to report any problems they observe. The reporting procedure should include built-in safeguards for confidentiality.
  • Investigation – When a member of management suspects a potential problem, an investigation should be undertaken. However, such investigations need to be governed by clearly defined procedures.
  • Disciplinary Action – A workplace drug and alcohol policy always includes details regarding discipline for rule violations. The procedure manual should detail how the disciplinary actions are carried out. Those responsible for discipline must adhere to these procedures at all times.
  • Testing – Workplace drug and alcohol testing is the most controversial part of the equation because it brings into question the idea of individual privacy. Nevertheless, in order for a drug and alcohol policy to be effective, testing procedures must be put in place.

Employers that do not yet have drug and alcohol policies in place are encouraged to draft and implement such policies as soon as possible. Substance misuse, abuse, and addiction are complex problems that can have a negative impact on the workplace. Whether or not that impact includes legal liability should not make a difference in determining the necessity of workplace policies. These are needed for all employers, regardless of the nature of their organisations.


  1. IAS –