5 Tips for Dealing With an Employee's Drug or Alcohol Problem

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Substance abuse can be an employer's worst nightmare. Unlike a bad dream, however, it's a very real problem in the workplace.

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Seventy percent of the 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, according to an estimate from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Because Americans spend most of their time at work, it's not unlikely that an employee's problem with drugs or alcohol will spill into the workplace. That makes knowing how to deal with an employee's addiction – and the accompanying dilemma of whether to fire or retain them – of critical importance.

Bear the following five tips in mind the next time you face the difficult decision of whether to keep or dismiss an employee with a drug or alcohol problem:

1. Consider Whether the Employee's Substance Abuse Has Already Hurt or Endangered Others in the Workplace

Your safety and the safety of your employees (which can directly impact productivity) need to be your first priority. According to NCADD, one-fifth of workers and managers report that a coworker's drinking has jeopardized their own safety and productivity. Thirty-five percent of patients with an occupational injury are at-risk drinkers.

If an employee's substance abuse has caused injury to you or others in the workplace – for example, if they were operating dangerous machinery while under the influence and injured a coworker – that's grounds for termination.

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2. Consult Your Policy

You should have a clear written policy in place to which you can refer in just these sorts of instances. Zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol in the workplace should be one element of this policy, which can be conveyed in your company manual and/or other orientation materials. Every employee should be familiar with these expectations, and the same policy should apply to everyone, whether it's a worker on the warehouse floor or a high-up executive. Special treatment and exceptions to company policy are not healthy for morale, and they may come back to bite you.

In the absence of such a policy, refer to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's handbook for supervisors on alcoholism in the workplace. (The same personnel principles outlined in this handbook can be applied if the problem at hand is drugs.)

3. Evaluate If/How Substance Abuse Is Affecting an Employee's Job Performance and to What Degree

As an employer, you naturally need to think about your bottom line. You pay your employees to perform a job. If they are not adequately performing their job, they need to be held accountable.

Here, the specific context is very important, depending on the employee in question, their previous performance evaluations, length of employment with you, and any previous problems related to substance abuse. In some cases, a first workplace slip-up with drugs or alcohol may warrant a disciplinary warning and appropriate steps to get the employee help, as opposed to terminating them on the spot.

Say, for example, that you have an employee with a long track record of excellent performance reviews. Only very recently have they begun to call in sick and show up late. In this case, your best call may be to give them a second chance by referring them to your employee assistance program and appropriate treatment.

4. Gauge the Employee's Level of Ownership of the Problem and Their Motivation to Address It

Take the above case, for example. Does the employee express genuine contrition and concern about how drinking or drugs are compromising their ability to do their job? Are they serious about wanting to turn the situation around?

Answers to these questions may help you determine whether to fire or retain an employee with an addiction. If they can't admit they have a problem or reject supervisory feedback, that is a warning sign. At the very least, it may be grounds for an ultimatum: If they are not willing to own their problem and show motivation to get help for it, they will lose their employment.

5. Remember That an Employee Who Wants to Pursue Drug or Alcohol Treatment May Have Certain Job Protections Under Federal Law

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects employees from losing their job while seeking or undergoing treatment for drug or alcohol abuse so long as they are able to perform their job safely and adequately. Under the terms of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), moreover, a substance use disorder (SUD) qualifies as a "serious health condition" that grants eligible employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave. If your employee is eligible for FMLA benefits and they come to you requesting time off for substance abuse treatment, you are prohibited from firing them.

Dealing with an employee with a possible SUD is rarely easy. Employers face multiple considerations in deciding whether to fire or retain someone struggling with drugs or alcohol. The silver lining for employers who find themselves in that hard place is that whatever they decide, it may prove just the motivation that person needs to pursue recovery.

Anna Ciulla is the clinical director at Beach House Center for Recovery.