The Elephant in the Room: Smelly Employees – Alcohol

Most companies have a policy which states that you must not attend work under the influence of alcohol, and some will clearly state that alcohol is not permitted during working hours, including business lunches, networking events and formal dinners.

However, in some sectors, drinking (alcohol) at work is part of the job, it’s expected. The journalists, the marketing executives and the salesmen are all jobs which traditionally required people to build their networks and work their magic in the pub or the wine bar.

This blog is not going to cover the concept of drinking at / for work – that is a separate issue for another day and not linked to smelly employees or The Elephant in the Room.

The focus on today’s blog is how do you deal with and support the employee who comes into work some or every day smelling of alcohol.

Things you need to consider:

  • Whether you have documented rules, policies or procedures around alcohol and attending work under the influence
  • Whether the employee is in a safety critical role or one where they hold a license which requires them to be sober. Examples of this may be a fork lift truck licence or a security guard’s SIA licence.
  • Whether the drinking is a result of work related stress
  • Whether the drinking is a result of poor mental health
  • Whether the person has a Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) which requires medical attention. This causes their breath to smell like acetone which is very similar to stale alcohol.

Given that you have no idea what you are dealing with, other than a bad smell, you don’t want to jump to conclusions. The person may be aware of the smell, but too embarrassed to seek help. The person may have a genuine alcohol problem, the symptoms and cause of which need to be addressed.

The most important thing is to keep an open mind and not be judgemental. You are on a fact find to establish what the problem is, so don’t make assumptions.

Find a suitable time and place to have an open and supportive conversation. Address your concerns directly, so that the elephant is visible to you and your colleague. Demonstrate your concerns with a few examples, but don’t make it overwhelming. If work quality has been impacted, say so. If it hasn’t, make sure that they know this too.

Your role is to provide a safe place to talk and to help them get the professional help they need. You can’t solve all their problems. You are not trained to do so, and it is not your job to do so.

However, you do have a duty of care towards them and others and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. If they are client facings, training younger or less experienced members of staff or line managing others, they are representing your business. That is your reputation as well as theirs at stake. Do not ignore a bad smell, it is likely to be an indication of a far bigger problem to be resolved.



To read our previous blogs on The Elephant in the Room and Smelly Employees, click on



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