How to Handle Addiction in the Workplace


Your employee’s behavior seems strange, out of character. He’s started showing up late to work and seems unfocused and nervous while he’s there. Then he starts using sick days more often, forgetting to call in at all once or twice. Are these the signs of a drug or alcohol problem?


Unfortunately, it’s a very real possibility: 8.4 percent of full-time workers use illicit drugs, and 8.8 percent admit heavy alcohol use, according to findings by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employees who abuse substances are 25 to 30 percent less productive and miss work three times more often than their nonabusing colleagues.


Indeed, missing work is one of the classic warning signs you have an addict on staff. “A previously responsible employee suddenly starts coming in late or missing shifts,” says Dr. Jennifer Farrell, a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, Calif., who specializes in addiction medicine at Amen Clinics. She points to other troublesome indicators that may signal a serious problem: mood swings or erratic behavior, a sudden shift in productivity or level of interest in work, and a change in grooming habits. It’s important to note, however, that while these behaviors might indicate a drug problem, they do not necessarily confirm there is one.


What’s an employer to do?


Start with a private conversation. “You may get further if you express concern and empathy before asking about drug use,” advises Farrell. She recommends asking questions about changes in mood or behavior such as, “I’ve noticed you’ve missed three shifts this month. I’m surprised. This isn’t like you. Is everything OK?” or “John, you’ve been late a lot lately, and two customers have complained about a short temper. What’s going on?” Always respect the employee’s right to privacy by not inquiring about his or her medical history.


Document behavior. The employee’s problem behavior could be affecting a multitude of areas: punctuality, attendance, safety guidelines, job performance, and interactions with others, to name a few. “Has the employee been warned about the behavior or policy violation? Has the employee been given a plan of improvement? Does the employee know his or her job is in jeopardy? These are important things to consider,” says Sandi Ransom, director of human resources at Accord Human Resources in Oklahoma City. “It is best whenever possible to act on the performance deficiencies and policy violations rather than addressing causes such as drugs, alcohol, or personal issues.” Make sure your records show a history of documenting satisfactory behavior as well.


Review your policy. From drug testing to searching employees’ lockers or desks, make sure your business’s expectations and guidelines are detailed in writing in your employee handbook. “Have a written policy prohibiting use or possession of illegal drugs in the workplace and being under the influence of illegal drugs in the workplace,” says Debra S. Friedman, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia. “This policy will support your decision to take action against policy violators as long as the policy is appropriately and consistently enforced.” Consult a legal professional if necessary.


Don’t discriminate. Recovered alcoholics and drug addicts are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, so be careful not to jump to conclusions if you know they’ve had this kind of problem in the past. “[But] if the employee is currently using, they no longer have protection under the ADA,” says Ransom. “However, if there are medical issues behind the behavior rather than drug use, you could have an ADA claim on your hands. Keep in mind that employees suffering from alcoholism or other addictions might have additional protections under state law. You may also need to consider other laws such as Family Medical Leave.”


Confirm substance abuse is the problem. Don’t be surprised if your employee doesn’t come right out and admit he or she has a problem. Your next option is to do a drug or alcohol test. Before moving forward, Ransom says, “be certain you have a policy in place that is within legal guidelines, the policy was distributed to the employees, you have a signed acknowledgment from the employee to prove he or she knows about the policy, and testing has been conducted consistently.”


Decide on a course of action. Depending on the situation, a failed drug test could mean disciplinary action such as dismissal (just make sure performance deficiencies have been formally documented) or a treatment solution like a rehabilitation program. “The length and intensity of treatment depends on the type of substance used and the severity of the use,” says Farrell, who adds that employers should have on hand a list of resources to give employees, such as physicians who specialize in treating addiction, local AA or NA meetings, and treatment facilities. “Some people need intensive residential treatment for several months, and others can do counseling, AA, or NA after work or on weekends, and some will benefit from an intensive day program for a few weeks. A professional can do an assessment and see where the treatment should start.” Your business’s Employee Assistance Program is another good resource for counseling or other services. If your business doesn’t have an EAP yet, consider offering one.