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Keeping the peace

Published:  23 July, 2008

It's 10pm on a Friday night. The bar is packed and a client slurs three large vodkas' to the bartender. Serving the group will take them to dangerously high levels of alcohol, but saying no' will antagonise them, and in the mood they're in, God knows what they'll do. It's tempting to give the nearest a gentle shove and then watch them fall, domino-style, to the floor, a flaying mass of flesh and booze.

Instead the bartender takes the route of least resistance, pours the drinks and hopes that the inevitable fall-out, verbal or otherwise, doesn't occur until the customer has left.

This is probably a familiar scene to anyone who has worked at the coalface of the drinks business, i.e. in licensed premises, no matter how upmarket the establishment. Traditionally, the industry has had a cavalier attitude towards staff facing up to tough customers; it goes with the territory and if you can't deal with it, get out.

But things had to change with the 2003 Licensing Act. It is an offence to serve alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated. Doing so could result in a fine not only for the establishment, but also for the individual serving. Most people in the on-trade have welcomed the law and the powers it has given them, but it does mean that it is imperative for staff to know how to deal with clients who are the worse for wear. In practice, this can be tricky, as many bars and restaurants are staffed by a motley crew of part-time workers, students and foreign residents, many of whom are young and don't have the life experience to deal with a situation that would test the nerves of an assertiveness trainer. Giving them guidelines on how to deal with intoxicated customers is crucial.

Many organisations are already on the case. We've had a huge increase in people taking our courses,' says David Hawbrook, managing director of abv Training, an independent company based in Staffordshire that delivers BII (formally the British Innkeepers Institute) training. The basic-level course includes modules on: How to recognise drunkenness and your duty not to serve drunk customers' and Appropriate strategies that can be adopted to prevent or eliminate alcohol-related crime and conflict and the importance of personal safety'.

Spot the drunk

Many in the on-trade are fed up with being tarred with the binge-drinking brush,' Hawbrook explains. The majority of landlords have recognised the risks of not sorting it out, they want to be responsible and do their bit. This means licence holders have an increased desire to train their bar staff. BII training puts a lot of emphasis on recognising the signs of intoxication and stopping it before it gets too far. We also use role playing so students can explore dealing with tougher situations.'

A high-profile BII client is Club Sanuk, Blackpool's second-largest nightclub. It recently sent 12 of its supervisory staff on the course, which was conducted by Rosebud Training. Partially this was so Club Sanuk could demonstrate to the police that it is committed to up-skilling its personnel. But also it was to give people the basic confidence to say no I'm not serving you'. Trainer Jackie Morris explains: I emphasise that they are administering a drug and they need to understand its effects.

I also explain how the law has changed and give information on how the police work. Showing staff how to pull a pint and use the till is no longer enough.'

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) takes a less hands-on approach but it has also become increasingly aware of social responsibility and now includes these issues in all of its courses. We don't see our remit as covering specifically how to deal with customers,' says Ian Harris, chief executive, but we do cover recognising the signs of intoxication, the Licensing Act, and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association Social Responsibility Standards, which have recently been published.

We also give all our students a booklet called The Wise Drinkers Guide. Times have changed and we are now very conscious of the need to do our bit to raise awareness,' he adds.

Industry responsibility

So while the formal education organisations are recognising the need to teach on-trade staff about how to deal with alcohol abuse, what about the information given to the on-trade by the drinks industry? You've pricked my conscience,' says Robin Knapp, wine director at Matthew Clarke, when I ask him about his company policy. Our training is entirely about how to sell products. Maybe we should be informing people about the units of alcohol involved. For example a 250ml glass of wine probably has two units, so would take someone over the limit to drive. Of course we have a strong policy on responsible drinking, but maybe we should be looking at this area.'

So it seems that stakeholder companies have either established policy on how to give on-trade staff the support they need or at least are becoming aware of the need to do so. But what of the on-trade itself? After all in an industry with a phenomenally high staff turn-over, it's in-house training that will really make the difference.

JD Wetherspoon is taking a prevention-is-better-than-cure stance at its 650 pubs across the country and has introduced a four-point Responsible Drinking Charter':

No two for one offers on drink.

No happy hours.

No financial incentive to upsize drinks.

Cocktails and pitcher now have fewer alcohol units.

And part of the Wetherspoon's staff training is how to deal with people who wish to drink to excess. For the staff, the charter means we have very clear guidelines on what is acceptable practice in a JD Wetherspoon pub. They know that if they need to refuse to serve someone they'll have the back-up of their manager and the company,' says CEO John Hutson.

At the independently owned Atlas pub in west London, manager Toby Ellis points out that a lot of it is about creating the right atmosphere. If the pub looks smart then people are more respectful. Then it's about policing; if people are getting boorish then we tell them to keep the noise down, plus we don't serve silly drinks like triple vodkas. We try and stop things before they go too far, so staff shouldn't be put in the position where they have to deal with a situation they can't handle. But at the end of the day it's down to me, it's my call. I'm the licensee, so although I can delegate to an extent, it's my responsibility. It means I have to be around on Friday/Saturday nights when it gets really busy and things could get out of hand. But the main thing though is that people are happy, then they are less likely to kick off.'

Staff support

Graham Bickett, manager of the Liquid Ship in Glasgow's West End, also emphasises the need to back staff up. They'll come to me for advice, but if they decide not to serve someone then I'll support their decision. Usually the customer will then try and approach another server, so it is important to let everyone on the team know what's going on. After a while they'll just give up and leave. To be honest it's not a massive problem for us because we are known as a place for people to relax and enjoy themselves, we're not a hard drinkers' pub.'

So from this straw poll of businesses it seems that most are facing up to the problem of excessive alcohol and treating their staff with due care. This is all very admirable, but does it work? A pub/bar is a business providing a place for people to unwind and let off a bit of steam, the idea of being monitored by a po-faced, jobs-worth manager could easily put off a lot of customers. Takings then go down, staff are made redundant - object defeated.

At first the charter and the responsible drinking policy did hit profits,' says Hutson, but Wetherspoon is a long-term business and so we want to run our pubs properly and not be painted with the problems of binge drinking. We may have lost a few sales, but if we encouraged excessive drinking and its inherent problems, it would discourage clients from visiting, which of course would have more serious ongoing consequences for the business.'

Ellis breaks off from enjoying a quiet pint at The Atlas to add his agreement. The "but we've been here all night" line, doesn't cut it with me. If people get rowdy and start disturbing people at other tables, perhaps people who are enjoying a meal and a good bottle of wine, then we are going to lose those customers and they are actually spending more. Tolerating bad behaviour could have a serious effect on our profitability.'

One problem with the 2003 Licensing Act is that it doesn't give a specific number of units that must be consumed in order for someone to be deemed intoxicated, and obviously people have different tolerance levels. This is probably deliberate because pub/bar/club staff are not there as arbiters of the public's moral or physical health. However, licence holders and staff are responsible for what happens on their premises. How many drinks would get served if staff were over-zealous with this law? Not many!' points out BII trainer David Hawbrook. It's a question of judging when people have crossed over the boundary of reasonable behaviour.'

Britain has always been a hard-drinking nation - you only have to read some Shakespeare to know this is true - but the binge-drinking scourge is a more recent problem. The anecdote of the ill-trained barperson serving a drink to an obviously highly intoxicated customer, simply because they don't know how to refuse, is not yet yesterday's myth. However, there is clearly a real will among many in the industry to turn it into one. What's more there are an increasing number of ways for staff to be given the confidence and strategies to do so.

The police have and will prosecute under the 2003 Licensing Act. It is the duty of licence holders to uphold the law. They must also make sure their staff members are also in a position, through training if necessary, to act responsibly. And on that note, I'm going to my local for a large glass of wine, but I promise I'll behave.