When an Employee Is A Problem Drinker

If you're a manager or supervisor, you may one day face the unpleasant task of dealing with an employee with an alcohol or other addiction.

About 80% of heavy drinkers are employed either full or part time, reports the Hazelden Foundation, a treatment and research center in Center City, Minn. About 500 million work days are lost annually due to alcoholism, a 1991 study shows, while lost productivity due to alcohol and drug abuse in the U.S. is estimated at $81 billion a year, according to a 1995 study.

Rather than firing an employee due to alcohol or substance abuse, or ignoring the issue, alcoholism-treatment experts say the best plan is for managers to treat the issue as a job-performance problem.

"Managers can't identify the problem, even if they are sure, because that would mean they are making a diagnosis, and they aren't qualified to do that," says Bill Arnold, corporate director of substance-abuse counseling services for Quad/Graphics, a Sussex, Wis., printing company with about 12,000 employees.

Approaching the issue as a performance problem avoids legal issues that might surface from labeling an employee and therefore being liable for their actions, says Eric Goplerud, director of Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, a program offered by George Washington University Medical Center to encourage treatment. Once they are treated and recovering, employed alcoholics and addicts are covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cannot be fired because of their illness.

"The ADA says a person in recovery is a protected class and must be treated as any other employee," says Dr. Goplerud.

Dealing with addiction issues as a performance problem applies whether an employee has been a star performer or just average. And just as with any other performance issue, it should be done as soon as problems surface. "The worst thing you can do is look the other way," says Mr. Arnold.

Most employers use a progressive approach when disciplining employees with performance problems, starting with a warning and leading up to more severe consequences and eventually, termination, if the problems aren't corrected. Managers should use progressive discipline when dealing with employees who may have addiction issues, starting by documenting the performance problems or concerns and then meeting with the employee to discuss them, says Dr. Goplerud.

"The kind of intervention that usually makes sense is for the supervisor to sit down with the employee and say, 'I have observed that your productivity is slipping,' or 'that you are missing meetings,' " Dr. Goplerud says. "If their performance deteriorates, then whatever human-resources processes that are in place for discipline or removal from the job should be applied."

During the initial discussion, managers should provide employees with a list of resources they can tap to deal with personal issues that might be causing their poor performance.

At many companies, managers refer employees to an (EAP) for evaluation. EAPs have counselors who are trained to diagnose substance-abuse problems and recommend treatment. About 86% of companies with more than 500 employees have EAPs, while 62% of companies with between 25 and 499 employees have them, according to a 2002 study by Open Minds, a market-research and consulting firm in Gettysburg, Pa.

For companies, a lot is at stake in intervening with alcoholics and addicts effectively. Screening and treating employees with alcohol problems yields a 215% return on investment in health-care savings for employers, according to Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, which offers an "alcohol cost calculator" that shows the financial return for businesses investing in alcohol treatment.

Employees are more likely to get help when they are given deadlines to improve performance and told they'll face more serious consequences, such as termination, if they don't, says Scott Basinger, associate dean of extramural affairs for Baylor College of Medicine's Graduate School of Biomedical Studies, who leads its Substance Abuse Assistance Council and the program.

Dr. Basinger says he recalls counseling an associate professor, a medical doctor in his late 40s who was sent for an evaluation. The chairman of the department said the professor had become increasingly irritable, was missing work because of the "flu," and had other performance problems, he says.

During the counseling session, the professor admitted he had a drinking problem and agreed to enter a treatment center. When he returned to work, he signed a contract agreeing to attend support meetings and counseling sessions and take random drug-screening tests. Now, three years later, he is in recovery and holds a high-ranking clinical position at Baylor, says Dr. Basinger.

Sometimes all employees need to hear to get help is that it's available and that their company will support them if they seek treatment.

A.J. Johnson says while he was a general manager of food and beverage for Marriott International Inc., he was a daily drinker and suffering from memory blackouts. After Marriott hired an EAP provider, Mr. Johnson attended a meeting for managers to learn about the new service. "They talked about the symptoms of the illness and that there was help available and employees wouldn't lose their jobs as a result," says Mr. Johnson.

He went home after the meeting and had what he says was his last alcoholic drink. "I called them that morning and said I had a friend who drinks too much," he says. "This nice lady I talked with asked me if I was drinking now, and, by 5 p.m., I was in treatment."

Mr. Johnson worked for Marriott another 11 years before starting a new career as an alcohol counselor at the Kolmac Clinic in Silver Spring, Md., where he had been a patient years earlier. He is now its assistant clinical director.

source: Wall Street Journal