The Substance Abusing Employee
Joe X works in a small financial consulting firm that was founded by Mom and Pop. Over the past five years, he has gradually worked his way up to become second-in-command; in fact, he has developed so close a relationship with Mom and Pop that even the employees forget he's not their son. As Mom and Pop have gotten closer to retiring, they have begun to take a backseat in the day-to-day operations of their business and have left it up to Joe to keep the business going.
All heck breaks loose when a trusted secretary calls Mom and tells her that Joe has been sexually harassing her for the past six months. An outside investigation, conducted by yours truly, quickly discovers that these allegations are just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, Joe has a serious drug problem and has:
• Fired employees for refusing to pick up marijuana for him
• Sold drugs to his employees
• Smoked marijuana in his office and during lunch
• Threatened employees with dismissal if they communicated directly with Mom or Pop
• Cost the company thousands of dollars because of the three-fold turnover since he was promoted to his position.
Then, there's Charlie - the CEO of a large retail chain. Charlie's wife died three years ago and since then, he hasn't been the same. Always a party-hardier, Charlie has made a complete boob out of himself at the last several company parties.
Senior employees constantly maneuver around him and no one has had the courage to speak to Charlie about his increasing moodiness, tardiness, or the smell of alcohol that is often on his breath. In fact, things only come to a head when several employees witness him drunkenly groping an employee, the victim employee threatens to file a lawsuit, and their outside counsel threatens to fire the company if they fail to take action.
You're Not the Person I Hired
It's interesting that both of these scenarios came to a head because of offensive behavior complaints when the underlying problem was substance abuse. Not only does a drug or alcohol problem cloud a person's judgment, drug users in the workplace are 3.6 times more likely to injure themselves or someone else in a workplace accident; up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
One of the sayings I frequently heard from ex-substance abusers during my internship stint on the drug/alcohol ward of a V.A. hospital was this: "You can't have a real relationship with a substance abuser because s/he is already married - to his or her drug of choice."
Without question, a person who is dependent on drugs or alcohol is not the same person s/he was before using. In fact, there are often telltale signs of potential substance abuse problems early on - inconsistency, a slowed or erratic work pace, trouble concentrating, increased errors and mistakes. The employee's personal appearance deteriorates (inappropriate or sloppy dress, blood-shot eyes), he's less dependable (Monday/Friday absences, missed deadlines), and his judgment and productivity decline. In addition, as the addiction progresses, his interpersonal relationships go down the tube as his fuse shortens and he becomes easily angry/irritable.
Codependent No More
It's hard to see someone you care about slowly throwing his life away, which is why the number one mistake managers make with regards to a substance-abusing employee is to enable him or her - usually with the best of intentions. In fact, it's often the best managers who fall into the trap of thinking if they pick up the slack or cover for the employee long enough, s/he will get his or her life back together and everyone will live happily ever after.
I've seen managers ignore performance or productivity problems, coworkers cover up for substance-abusing employee, and employees pick up the additional workload created by a substance dependent manager. You probably know someone who's let personal friendship or loyalty dissuade him or her from taking corrective action. Substance-abuse related or not, at some point we've probably all allowed a fear of confrontation to permit us to ignore a problem.
Unfortunately, not only do these "favors" ultimately hurt the receiver, they create legal liability for the employer through 1) an increase in the likelihood the employee will engage in risky or inappropriate behavior; 2) a higher chance the person will be involved in on-the-job accidents; and 3) better odds the person will damage equipment or property. By recognizing and intervening to hold a substance abuser responsible for his/her own behavior, you are helping him/her to take the first step on the road to recovery.
Blues singer Billie Holiday once said, "There is no solitary confinement outside of jail." A drug or alcohol habit not only affects the addicted employee, it can wreak havoc on the work of coworkers and managers who must deal with him. An employer who proactively addresses workplace substance abuse through effective policies, procedures, and program is not only helping prevent an abusive or enabling work environment; s/he may ultimately help the employee escape from the prison of addiction