Frontline Supervisor: Alcohol and Your Employees
Each month, "The Balance Sheet" provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that's important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people.
Q. I am a skeptic who believes that alcoholics can’t learn to quit drinking. Aren’t success rates from treatment programs overblown? My father drank until his last days, and there were a lot of incidents that should have motivated him to quit.
A. Your experience underlies your belief that alcoholics can’t be treated successfully, but in fact, successful treatment is common. There are millions of treated, abstinent, recovering people. An impressive demonstration of alcoholism’s treatability is the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s management of more than 1,500 alcoholic airline pilots over the past thirty years. The vast majority have been successful in treatment, which means they completely abstain from substance use. The program has been independently studied and found to have an 85% success rate. The key is rigorous follow-up and support for the participants. Once a pilot is treated, the program permits a return to the job after abstinence and participation in recovery for a defined period of time. As with most chronic illnesses, relapses sometimes occur. Participating pilots aren’t necessarily terminated but are evaluated to determine whether they can reestablish their recovery programs.
Q. My employee is recuperating at home after an on-the-job injury, and I hear that he is drinking heavily. I’ve always been under the impression that this employee doesn’t drink. I’m worried about the effect it could have on his returning to work. Can I make a referral to BJC EAP?
A. Rumors about your employee’s behavior at home aren’t enough to substantiate a supervisor referral to BJC EAP because they do not pertain to performance or behavior on the job. If your employee calls to discuss work-related issues, ask how he or she is feeling and recovering from the injury. Expressions of support facilitate injured employees returning to work sooner, so let the employee know you look forward to his or her return. If you hear expressions of frustration with being absent from work, encourage self-referral to BJC EAP for support. It might lead to an assessment. On the other hand, it’s likely that the drinking pattern will continue upon return to work, especially if this is the relapse of a recovering person. If so, you may notice a pattern of performance decline that didn’t exist prior to the injury. Injury and illness are known relapse triggers for recovering people. Don’t diagnose or make assumptions. Simply focus on performance and consult with BJC EAP on how to proceed.
Q. An employee appearing drunk at work was tested in accordance with our policy and scored above the legal limit for driving. His supervisor then announced to a group of people in the hallway that the employee was drunk and needed to go home. Is this proper?
A. Although the employee appeared drunk to those nearby, a manager’s declaration that an employee is drunk and needs to go home is improper. It discloses the results of a positive test and violates confidentiality and privacy provisions associated with drug testing procedures. Although an employee who tests positive at work should not be at work, an anxious and curious group of coworkers in a hallway should be met with a statement of assurance such as “The matter is being managed properly in accordance with our policy.” Nothing more need be said. Managers’ actions and words model how matters of this type are handled. The supervisor’s behavior in this case is neither likely to send a message that dignifies the medical condition of a potentially alcoholic employee nor likely to reduce stigma associated with addictive disease.