So I was helping a colleague to fix a bug and definitely smelled whiskey in his cup. I have no idea what my company’s policy is on alcohol while working, but can only assume it’s frowned upon.

We work in a software company, so there are no real safety worries.

What’s the right way to approach this? Obviously I don’t want to look like the bad guy, but I definitely need to tell someone, don’t I? He’s already been put on an employee improvement plan and is close to the edge.

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    Find out about the policy first regarding alcohol. Otherwise it seems like you're acting like a small child.
    – Brandin
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 16:56
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    I don't think you can say that there are no safety worries. What does your software do? Is it in medical devices, automobiles, aircraft, or spacecraft? Could people be injured or killed if your software fails? If so, that's one good reason to not be working while drinking. If you're in a contract environment, you also need to consider the reputation with your clients that could be impacted if he makes a mistake while under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. Ultimately, you need to find out your company's policy before you do anything - it could be OK. Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 17:01
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    Why is your first thought that you should do something, by the way? I don't see anything to indicate that your colleague's alcohol intake should be your concern, so why are you looking to make it your business? Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 18:31
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    Some diseases, like diabetes, make people smell like alcohol, even if they haven't had a drop. So, if anything else, he should have the benefit of the doubt.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 22:02
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    obligatory xkcd xkcd.com/323
    – mike3996
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 7:41

9 Answers 9


You frankly need to keep it to yourself. You said in your own words that you think you smell whiskey in his cup. You obviously aren't certain. And even if you were, I'm not sure it's your place to bring it up.

For you (and you need to be concerned about yourself first) there is no real upside and several downsides, such as being perceived as someone who makes trouble. Additionally, you may actually just be wrong.

If he's already been called out for his behavior, don't worry. It will catch up to him. He's already being watched and you mentioning the whiskey (unless it's a safety issue such as if he's a machine operator or driver) really won't help anything.


He's already been put on an employee improvement plan and is close to the edge.

Sounds like everyone knows he's a problem employee. Don't inject yourself into a situation that will likely end with him being shown the door very soon no matter what you do.

"Improvement plan" is usually HR code for about to be fired. Tattling on the guy has no upside for you, but other co-workers may discover that you reported him. No one likes to be ratted out, and both your boss and co-workers may change their behavior around you.

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    And note that there's no upside because the employer has chosen not to create an upside. This is either because they don't consider drinking at work a problem at all (and therefore don't want people snooping on each others' cups), or else because they "officially" ban it, but might take action as you describe against those who report it because in truth they don't want to know and are afraid who else they might have to discipline if they accidentally found out ;-) Three words: executive. long. lunch. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 1:14
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    There is a reason not very many people are prison snitches. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 2:08
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    Work is not prison. Prison is where we put people who do bad things, you need to back up your statement with facts this is a bad answer because it is all opinion with out anything backing it up. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 15:46
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    @ReallyTiredOfThisGame No one else is spitting facts here. Why so hard on this answer? ... The point of the comment is that in some circles, snitching gets you killed. The point of this answer is that people don't like snitches. The implications are that being well liked, esteemed, and maintaining a good reputation is more important than some whiskey in a cup.
    – user15729
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 21:25
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    @fredsbend Unfortunately the analogy breaks down fast because not informing the authorities of criminal activity because you're scared of getting hurt is a bad thing. The analogy is saying "do the wrong thing because it'll make you popular", which is probably not the connection sevens wanted to make. Basically it's a Broken Aesop which undermines the actual point he was making.
    – deworde
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 8:49

This may not be a problem – and if it is, it's most likely not yours anyway. It's entirelly possible that there is some context, that makes this acceptable. For example, perhaps he just got promoted or became a father, and his manager spiced up his coffee as a sign of cammaraderie and to congratulate.

As a fellow developer, and former worker in the restaurant business, there have been many acceptable situations where I have been consuming alcohol (in moderation!) while at work (celebrations, friday night team meetings etc.). In some cultures, this is entirelly okay, and some times it's even expected.

Also, don't forget that some medicine, such as cough syrup, contain alcohol. Adding a splash of whiskey to a cup of honeyed tea is a common remedy for a cold or sore throat, when cough medicine is not available. Although perhaps you can argue for his poor judgment, it doesn't make him a drunk.

You say that you definitely smelled whiskey in his cup ... but how sure are you? Is there a tiny chance that you might in fact be wrong? And even if you're not, and we assume he has no good excuse to spice up his cup o' joe, do you have any proof? If not, it's your word against his, and you'll look like a fool.

Nobody likes a tattle tale, and this sounds like a minor problem anyway. Drinking on the job is probably not great, but unless he is heavilly influenced, consistently shows up drunk or there are other issues (e.g. he is a brain surgeon or customer service rep), I would keep this to myself.

  • He is on an employee improvement plan and just got promoted. I have never been in an IT or development environment that considered alcohol at the workplace OK.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 19:41
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    Yeah, I'm not saying alcohol at the workplace is okay in general, just that there might be situations where having a drink is acceptable (for example, "we just launched a major project, assemble in the canteen for a glass of champagne. Signed, {The Boss}"). Also, some countries have a very different take on alcohol.
    – Nix
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 19:46
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    'Having a drink' and 'putting a splash of whiskey into some honeyed tea to relieve a cold' are two very different things
    – Jon Story
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 23:24
  • I've edited my answer to reflect the difference between enjoying a beverage in moderation for special circumstances and being intoxicated. @JonStory, I hope it's okay I used your example.
    – Nix
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 0:03
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    @paparazzi I have been at two companies where it was common to gather in the afternoon and have a couple of beers (I never drank, because I don't like beer). And I remember an old post on Workplace SE where someone was going for an interview and was sent the menu for that company's whiskey bar, so they could have something picked out to enjoy that day. I've never seen a place where drunkenness at work was OK, but moderate alcohol consumption in the workplace is not universally banned. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 13:15

If you feel a need to help him, tell this person that you think his coffee smells like whiskey. Don't allow him to confirm or deny it. Tell him it is none of your business and you don't want to know one way or the other. It's an FYI. Just say you don't want to get him in trouble. Otherwise, ignore it.

Like others have mentioned, if you find problems with his work, you need to say something about that. His poor performance will only hurt everyone in the long run.

  • best answer by far Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 20:29

If he is drinking at work, the probability of errors in his work is substantially increased. The more you drink, the more logical processing ability you lose.

I have worked with alcoholics and in every case, there was a measurable decrease in the quality of the work (In this case, it may well be why he is on a performance improvement plan). When I worked as an analyst, I could even see the exact place in the calculations where the person moved from not drunk to drunk when doing QC checks. If it seriously affects someone's ability to do simple addition and multiplication (this was back in the olden days before PCs when all math calulations were done manually), how much more do you think it is going to affect something more complex like programming?

In every case I have been witness to, a person found to be drinking at work got fired. I have even seen government employees (who are notoriously difficult to get fired) be fired for this. So if you report it and the investigation bears out your complaint, likely the guy will get fired. You have to judge for yourself if this is a good or bad thing or something that you can live with yourself for being partially a cause of (well he is mostly the cause of this, but it still feels like you caused it if it happens). It also can have a negative effect on your relationships with other employees if it becomes known that you did this.

If you don't want to report it, at least be aware that you need to check over any code he has written pretty carefully when you have reason to touch it or to code review it.

Also rather than report his drinking, you can bring up any code quality issues you find. Particularly if they are seriously impacting the project getting done. This is something that is provable unlike, "I think I smelled alcohol on his breath."

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    By found drinking do you mean imbibing alcohol even if not intoxicated? If so, the OP is ignorant of policy, so perhaps a drink isn't prohibited. I've worked at a sizable SW firm where "you're welcome to have a nip, just don't get drunk" was officially HR approved, and about half the dev staff openly kept bottles of whiskey on their desks. It's (in my experience) unusual and unlikely, but culture and policy should be considered. But, drunk at work is never OK. Agreed 100% that careful review is needed, but that should be happening regardless of drinking, due to known performance issues. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 3:00
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    "...I could even see the exact place in the calculations where the person moved from not drunk to drunk" - that statement sounds highly suspect to me. Did you confirm this against any objective evidence? It's easy to imagine that you can tell when somebody's work output was affected by drinking, drugs, whatever. A lot of that is equally likely to be simple distraction, lack of sleep, or other mundane reasons. Oh, and unrelated: In about half the tech companies I've worked for or interviewed at, not only do people not get fired for drinking at work, alcohol is actually served at work.
    – Aaronaught
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 4:03
  • The question author did not say that the smell came from the person's breath but from a cup. This does not necessarily imply the alcohol (if any?) has been ingested. Or by that particular person. Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 20:33
  • Back in those days we did math calculation by hand (this was before personal computers in the workplace) and yes, you could tell immediately where they got drunk because the math went from being 100% correct to around 30-40% incorrect. And yes I knew it was from drinking because I watched them drink in the evenings on the road (where we were doing the data collection) while they were doing the calculations.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 13:45

For now, it is safe enough to do nothing. If it isn't affecting your colleague's workflow, and you can't be certain that he's breaking any rules (or certain that it's definitely wiskey) you're only going to get yourself in trouble for reporting it on such little evidence.

However, keep an eye on him for any signs that it might become a problem. If he's on an employee improvement plan, it may be because of alcoholism, and while it may be innocent now, it could in the future become a problem. You should also read up on company policy, as faliure to report him could be in violation as well (though don't assume it is).

Don't make it your job to keep tabs on him (you already have a job - your actual work) but if you notice it daily, or notice him pouring something that looks like whiskey into his cup, and you notice his work starting to slip, you may want to bring it up to your supervisor's notice. Remain anonymous. You should not get yourself personally involved in this person's struggles. Only report this if you think it is a serious impediment on work, or if it becomes a danger to you or others around you.

  • it's just incredible what north-american company policies can contain.. Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 20:36
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    @AndreiRinea Corporate America - the land of Legal Opportunity.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 13:09

As someone who has grown up with an alcoholic close relative, I can honestly say, dealing with alcoholics is hard.

While a lot of the answers seem to point that you should stay out, I really think you should at least try to see if something is wrong. An alcoholic is often not just hurting themselves, but their entire family. They need all the pushes and support they can get.

You should do one decent try to help them.

I would try to subtly confirm my suspicion. If you get 90% convinced, talk to HR and tell them about your suspicion.

Ignoring alcoholics might save you some hassle, but honestly, you might be the last push someone needs to go into treatment, or simply just be the first of many to come.

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    I've experience dealing with loved ones who are (and were) alcoholics, and I strongly disagree that a coworker should get tangled up with an active alcoholic unless the alcoholic reaches out for help. There is nothing a coworker can do to help an addict who is not ready to be helped without risking damaging their own situation at work. Yes, addiction is a terrible, heartbreaking problem, but I would not wish on anyone what the people who care for addicts go through. I wouldn't want someone to put their own job and family at risk by "pushing" an addict who is currently in denial. It gets ugly.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 1:59

I agree with the general consensus that reporting behavior you suspect with out proof is probably not in your best interest, and I like JeffO's suggestion that if anyone, you should probably tell the person you suspect is drinking.

What I don't feel has been addressed in other answers is the possibility that you will be asked point blank by HR if you have noticed anything about that person (in a private environment). You should be prepared to answer that question, and in that specific case saying something like "I thought I smelled alcohol in their cup but was not sure enough to make an accusation" is completely justified and much better than bringing that accusation to the managers without being prompted. In this case they already know, but may need some level of proof before moving forward, and they would ask more than one person and hold your responses in confidence.

However, if you can politely point out your fears to the employee before it is too late, it would certainly be nice if they stepped back from the brink.


In a position where an intoxicated employee could be a threat to human life/safety I would absolutely report any reasonably suspected behavior, and would say you have a legal and moral obligation to do so. My advice to sit on your suspicions only applies to positions where they are only hurting their productivity and not threatening the safety of others.


Should you report him? Probably not. "I smelled what smelled like whisky in a cup" is basically not probable cause. Now, "his breath smelled like alcohol and his speech was slurred" may be cause to report him.

The answer that this might not be a problem is absurd.

People in IT are commonly held to a higher standard. They often have access to sensitive data and can cause a lot of harm.

Not making this up: a friend of mine manages security clearances. Regular (excessive) users of alcohol are considered less stable and more likely to let out a secret in the bar chatting it up with friends.

A DUI (driving under the influence) will stop you from getting many IT positions.

A DUI will stop you from getting most security clearances. A DUI will revoke some security clearances.

Any type of drug conviction will nix almost any IT programming position that bothers with a background check. In the case of drug use it is not just a case of being unstable, but someone could blackmail you with that information in exchange for sensitive information.

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    Not the downvoter (can't downvote), but some feedback: I found your post a bit confusing. The message wasn't clear to me. It lists a bunch of strong reasons why you wouldn't want to work with someone with a substance abuse problem, which seems to go against its (unsupported) thesis that he should do nothing.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 0:11
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    @JeremyBanks It is not a coworkers place to report based on smell in a cup. Still if true I seriously doubt it would be tolerated. There is an answer that proposed "This may not be a problem" - that is absurd - and that answer is getting up votes while this is getting down votes.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 0:22
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    They said "may", and they were correct due to that conditional. One drink that smells like alcohol is not evidence of anything, esp. as many flavorings -- eg vanilla -- are extracted w/ alcohol and many others are derived from alcoholic drinks -- eg rum flavoring -- but have no alcohol remaining in them. Further, not all workplaces ban alcohol, and one drink is not evidence of a problem. You, on the other ha d, made an absolute statement which is demonstrably incomplete at best. Downvote.. .
    – keshlam
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 13:55
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    This answer makes some very broad and contentious claims: a DUI or drug conviction will disqualify you for most IT positions, IT is held to a higher standard (higher than whom?), danger of blackmail... I don't think these are realistic. If you work at e.g. the US DoD, I could find them plausible, but in terms of the worldwide IT industry (which is how these claims are scoped in the answer), I sincerely doubt it. Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 2:38
  • This answer also implies that having some amount of whiskey in your coffee at work means that you are likely to commit a DUI or be an alcoholic. I work as a software developer, and I have worked at companies that provided us with alcohol (a beer keg) at work (to be used within reason). Suggesting that IT people shouldn't or don't drink alcohol is frankly laughable. It is all a matter of degrees and is entirely dependent on the context
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 21:26

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