Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Drink, Drank, Drunk - Words Matter

The moral of today's story is simple: When drafting work policies, say what you mean. In a Pennsylvania unemployment compensation case from the 80s, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (appellate court below PA Supreme Court) drew a line between drank and drunk. Keay v. UCBR, 551 A.2d 391 (Pa. Commw. 1988).

The Court had to determine if Gary Keay had been terminated for "willful misconduct" for violating the employer's rule:
"Performing work or driving or riding in a company vehicle while under the influence of alcoholic beverages, or being intoxicated or narcotics. A breathalyzer test can be administered by the company personnel. If the employee fails, he will be terminated. If the employee refuses to take the test, he will be terminated."
One day Mr. Keay and some of his co-workers went to lunch, and you guessed it... had some beer! So does this violate the rule? The Court found that
"[T]he Employer proved only that Keay had consumed alcoholic beverages during his lunch break; no evidence was introduced to indicate that his ability to perform his duties was in any way impaired. Consequently, the Employer failed to prove that Keay violated the rule against intoxication or working while under the influence."
The Court then reversed the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review's finding that Mr. Keay had engaged in willful misconduct. In other words, the employee drank but he was not necessarily drunk. It's a minor distinction but like I said in the title: words matter.

Just a note of warning... if your work policy says you cannot drink at work, I would most certainly not show up hammered tomorrow and say, "but the policy doesn't say anything about drinking before work!" I'm pretty sure that doesn't fly.