Five Tips For Managing Employee Alcohol & Drug Problems in the Workplace

Mark Sagor

helping others succeedOf all the complicated personal problems that employees bring to the workplace, none is more difficult for organizations to manage than drug and alcohol issues. Employee drug and alcohol problems pose uniquely troublesome challenges because the risks they pose to safety, health and quality are often obscured by employee deception and denial.

Employees who are missing work or making errors or having interpersonal conflicts due to an alcohol or drug problem rarely acknowledge the specific nature of their problems in a straightforward manner. Denial, shame and employee fears about termination often  prevent a frank discussion of the performance issues at hand. Also,  employees sometimes sidetrack the process by blaming other circumstances or people for the difficulties they are having.

What should a supervisor  do if they suspect an employee may be having a drug or alcohol problem that is interfering with their work performance?

1. Get the right people involved. Assemble a team including HR, your manager and the organizations EAP (employee assistance program) consultant to develop a performance management strategy. Recognize that because the situation may be complicated and volatile you should not go it alone.

2. Keep the focus on your areas of responsibility and expertise. Never tell an employee that you suspect that their performance issues are the result of an alcohol or drug problem, even if you feel certain of it. Stay off the slippery slope of diagnosing employee personal problems or motivation. Focus on observable workplace behaviors and expectations only.

3. Be prepared with documentation. Specific documentation of the employee’s performance issues is your best protection against a potentially angry, argumentative or defensive response from the employee. Objective facts, presented in a firm and emotionally neutral manner, are the best way to avoid a defensive response from the employee.

4. Be clear about expectations. Emphasize that you will be evaluating the employee’s improvement on the performance measures discussed. EAP services, when offered, are presented as a confidential resource to help the employee succeed, not as an alternative to performance improvement.

5. Be positive and supportive. Just because your role as a supervisor requires you to give an employee negative feedback on their performance doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive. Communicate your hope that the employee can make the necessary changes to become successful and your willingness to support this goal.

Supervisors are uniquely positioned to disrupt the cycle of employee drug or alcohol problems. Timely supervisory feedback may provide exactly the motivation and information they need to make necessary behavioral changes.

For more detailed guidance on how EAPs help organizations manage employee performance problems that may be resulting from alcohol/drug (or other personal) issues you are welcome to download a copy of Comprehensive EAP’s Supervisor Manual.