Legal Guide on “Drunk on Duty” Dismissal in South Africa

Legal Guide on “Drunk on Duty” Dismissal in South Africa:


  1. First Offense Leniency: For a first minor offense of being drunk on duty, South African employers usually issue a formal warning instead of firing, allowing employees a chance to improve.
  2. Progressive Discipline: The Labour Relations Act mandates a progressive discipline approach, often starting with a written warning for initial alcohol-related misconduct.
  3. Consistency is Key: The CCMA stresses uniform application of disciplinary actions for similar offenses, ensuring fair treatment across the board.
  4. Documenting Warnings: Documented warnings help employers legally, showing attempts to correct behavior before considering dismissal.
  5. Record Impact: Warnings are noted in personnel files and can influence internal reviews and promotion opportunities, underscoring the importance of professional conduct.

In South Africa, the issue of being drunk on duty is taken very seriously, particularly because of the potential risks it poses not only to the individual employee but also to their colleagues, the workplace environment, and the overall productivity of the organization. The handling of such cases is governed by a combination of statutory law, specifically under the Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1995, and established case law which provides a framework for employers on how to manage these situations legally and ethically.

The Labour Relations Act, 1995, serves as the cornerstone for employment law in South Africa, providing clear directives on the fair treatment of employees while ensuring that disciplinary actions are both fair and appropriate. According to the LRA, dismissal should be reserved for cases of serious misconduct, and being intoxicated on the job certainly fits this criterion, especially in roles that involve safety-sensitive duties.

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However, the process for handling such a dismissal must adhere strictly to the principles of fairness and legality. This involves several key steps: firstly, the employer must have a clear policy in place that outlines the prohibition of alcohol consumption during work hours or being under the influence while on duty. This policy must be well communicated to all employees.

For example, if a manufacturing company has a policy that prohibits the consumption of alcohol during work hours and an employee is found in violation of this policy, the next steps involve a thorough investigation.

Guide on "Legal Alcohol Limit" in the Workplace in South Africa
Guide on “Legal Alcohol Limit” in the Workplace in South Africa

During the investigation, it’s crucial that the employer gathers all relevant evidence to support the claim that the employee was indeed intoxicated. This may include eyewitness accounts, camera footage, or a professional medical assessment to determine the level of intoxication.

Once evidence is gathered, the employee must be given a fair chance to respond to the allegations in a disciplinary hearing. This is a fundamental requirement to meet the standard of procedural fairness. The employee has the right to be heard, to defend themselves, and to be assisted by a representative, which is often a trade union representative.

If, after the hearing, the employee is found guilty of being drunk on duty, the employer must then consider whether dismissal is the appropriate sanction. This decision depends on several factors, such as the nature of the job, the employee’s past disciplinary record, the severity of the breach, and whether the breach had, or could have had, serious safety or operational consequences.

Case law in South Africa has repeatedly underscored the importance of the context of each case when deciding on the appropriateness of dismissal for being drunk on duty. The CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration) has upheld decisions to dismiss in cases where the employees’ actions posed a significant risk to safety or were in clear violation of a known zero-tolerance policy.

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While being drunk on duty is grounds for dismissal, employers must ensure that all disciplinary processes are conducted fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Labour Relations Act. Employers should have clear policies, conduct thorough investigations, and provide a fair hearing before making any decision on dismissal. This approach not only ensures compliance with legal standards but also supports a just and equitable workplace environment.