The Wrong Way to Make an EAP Referral

Mark Sagor



right way wrong wayThe next time I present a training program for supervisors about using the EAP to help manage performance, I will be referencing a news story that was reported a couple of weeks ago in the Detroit area media.

The story focuses on a letter Carolyn Moceri, the City Treasurer of Warren, Michigan wrote to the Director of Human Resources requesting that the city’s Mayor “be referred to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for anger management counseling.” She claimed that the Mayor had been aggressive and physically threatening toward her and that there was a longstanding pattern of verbal abuse and threats towards coworkers.

In 30 years of EAP consulting work, I have never come across a more perfect example of the wrong way to use an EAP to help manage an employee behavioral issue.

Here’s why this is a textbook case of what not to do:

1. EAP referrals are a complement to, not a substitute for, an organization’s disciplinary process. Ms. Moceri has a right, and responsibility, to express her complaints about the alleged “ongoing behavior of bullying, threatening and intimidating” and I agree with her that this behavior “should not be allowed in the workplace.” However, her recommendation that an EAP referral be the next step in managing the alleged problem is inappropriate and bound to fail. Before an EAP referral is considered the City of Warren should first follow its protocol for investigating harassment complaints and then, if the complaint is documented, the City should formally warn and discipline the mayor. At that point it would be appropriate to offer the mayor assistance from the city’s EAP.

2. EAPs can only be effective when they play a supportive, not punitive, role in organizations.  The City Treasurer’s letter is written in anger and the tone is punitive. Employees will not feel comfortable receiving assessment and counseling from their EAP unless they believe that the program is intended to help them and not to punish them.

3. EAP referrals must respect employee privacy and confidentiality. The City Treasurer has every right to have her claim of harassment investigated and acted upon. She does not have any standing, however, to know if the Mayor was referred to the EAP. Ms. Moceri, and other City employees, will rightfully be interested observers of the Mayor’s workplace behavior going forward but they have no right to know about any specific remedial steps the Mayor may be taking (e.g. EAP services, other professional or medical assistance, pastoral counseling, etc.). Information regarding EAP referrals should be on a strictly “need to know” basis within the organization.

4. EAP referrals should be descriptive not diagnostic. Ms. Moceri is qualified to report behaviors she has observed in the workplace but she is not qualified to ascribe motivations or make diagnoses based on these behaviors. In this instance we don’t know if the reported behaviors are the result of an “anger management” problem or a chemical dependency issue or some other behavioral or medical condition. One of the primary reasons to make an EAP referral is to get a professional assessment of the problem. Managers put themselves on shaky ground when they venture outside of their area of expertise and responsibility (workplace performance) and try to make diagnostic judgments.

The EAP can be an extremely useful resource for organizations to help employees when the program is properly implemented. It’s a vital service and worth protecting against those mistakes that can undermine program effectiveness and credibility.

For more detailed information about making a management referral to the EAP please see our “Resources for Managers” page.