French drinks giant Pernod Ricard is facing court action for piling “constant pressure” on staff to consume alcohol on the job.
Famous for popularising pastis, the cloudy anise-flavoured drink beloved by the boules players of southern France, Pernod Ricard is the world’s second-biggest spirits maker and posted record sales last year.
In its drive to get customers to consume more, one current and two former employees have accused the group of strong-arming them into downing alcohol at work, leading to addiction, poor health and in one case, hallucinations.
A former Ricard salesman has filed a complaint in the French labour courts, arguing that he suffered from “burn out” due to excessive drinking in promotional campaigns in bars, nightclubs and bullfighting festivals in southern France.
An expert concluded during hearings that there was a “certain, direct and exclusive” link between his job and his state of nervous exhaustion.
The ex-employee known only as Julien, 42, who was a manager in southern France, said: “I drunk every day (at work).”
He said that while officially the company advised consumers to drink “with moderation”, there was a chasm between “the theory and the reality”.
Pernod Ricard, which owns Beefeater gin and Jameson Irish whiskey alongside Absolut vodka and Martell cognac, denies the claims, saying it applies a "zero tolerance" approach to drinking at work.
The tribunal’s ruling is expected later this month.
Two other people, one who still works for the group, also allege being pressured into drinking copiously with customers.
“It’s the company culture; if you say no, it’s frowned upon,” one unnamed female employee still working for the group, told Le Parisien.
She alleged she was chosen for the job after showing she could “stand up to intense effort” and whether “I could take my drink”.
When she complained it was affecting her health, she claimed her superiors told her: “What are you complaining about, you’re paid to party.” But when she started suffering from hallucinations, she said her doctor warned her: “If you carry on like that, in three years you’re dead."
She reportedly intends to file a similar complaint.
Another unnamed male ex-employee told the paper he would regularly drink 12 pastis a day – and up to 40 in certain alcohol-fuelled festivals – and drove while drunk.
“I could have killed someone,” he said.
In response to these allegations, Emmanuel Vouin of Ricard said: “All our (other) employees, I’m certain, could give you radically different testimonies. We have nothing to hide. I reaffirm that for all 19,000 people who work for the group around the world, we apply zero tolerance. There is no alcohol culture nor any directive to incite people to consume (alcohol) in any way.”
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Bruno Goimier, communication head of Ricard, said: “All employees have signed a charter of responsible behaviour. It is written: ‘In daily life, do not create an obligation to consume alcoholic beverages.’”
This is not the first time the group has been accused of such practices. In 2011, it lost a slander case against the author of a book in which staff complained of being forced to consume alcohol to boost sales figures.
One former salesman, Franck Daniel, said the company’s attitude was: "The more one sold the more one was paid, and the more you were drinking the more you sold.”
According to the book, Legal Dealer, the superiors of one drunk salesman reprimanded him for not having "run to the surrounding woods to hide for a few hours to sober up" to avoid a police test.
The court found it had failed to provide any proof that the company had set "precise limits that are not to be overstepped" in employees’ drinking habits.
In France, employees are allowed to drink a limited number of alcoholic beverages at work, including wine, beer and cider, but only at staff canteens or on “special occasions”. Employers can be held responsible if a member of staff has an accident while drunk.
Normally consumed as an aperitif with water, pastis is hugely popular in France, where the average person consumes over one litre of it per year.
The group "firmly denies the existence of a policy of incitation to consume alcohol among employees".
In a statement, it said there was "no directive or internal orders given to sales teams urging them to drink alcohol as part of their job".
Philippe Coutin, CEO of the Ricard and Pernod Companies, said: "These allegations today cast aspersions on all our salespeople, both Ricard and Pernod, whose personal commitment we salute here (and who are) all united by the same duty of exemplarity."