What to do when your employee’s alcohol use is affecting the job


According to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), around 1 in 13 Americans struggle with alcohol dependency.

Of course, not every employee who drinks a little too much at your holiday party is an alcoholic, but some may have a problem that goes undetected until it becomes blatantly obvious.

However, even a “blatantly obvious” problem needs to be handled with care.

In Miners v. Cargill Communications, a summary judgment for Cargill, who’d terminated Miners after she’d refused to enter treatment for alcohol dependency, was reversed when the court found Cargill had violated the ADA by firing Miners because of a perceived alcohol dependency.

Miners had been observed by her employer on at least one occasion consuming alcohol at a bar and then driving away in the company van—a breach of company policy—and she may or may not have been an alcoholic. The company President erred, however, when confronting Miners with the news that he believed she could be. That’s a big no no, and Miners never confirmed his suspicions.

Instead, Miners declined the President’s offer to go into treatment, was promptly fired, and then promptly sued.

Focus on behavior, and forget the labels

If your employee violates company policy by say, consuming alcohol and then driving a company vehicle, as Miners did, or getting into a (seeming alcohol-induced) altercation with a coworker, you’re completely within your rights to discipline the employee. However, focus on the offending behavior without giving it a name.

Do the same if the performance issues are less dramatic but still deserving of attention, such as chronic lateness or absence, missed deadlines, and shoddy or incomplete work. Address the specifics of the behavior, and refrain from making any diagnoses.

Note that in the Cargill case, Miners’ boss’ judgment may have been swayed by his own history of addiction. (Another reason to check your biases at the door before attempting to resolve employee relations issue.)

Please, please consider an EAP

If your compensation package doesn’t include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), please consider a change for 2015. EAP counselors can be invaluable in guiding a company through sticky situations such as this. There are many fine EAPs throughout the country, and the fees are modest as benefits go.

Be responsible

Know that if your employee’s behavior is a danger to himself or other employees you have a duty to act. Again, however, do so without the name calling.

Keep your word

In Moorer v. Baptist Memorial, Baptist Memorial Health Care was ordered to pay more than $1 million to William Moorer after firing Moorer before he was scheduled to return to work from an approved five-week leave of absence. Moorer was spending that time at a recovery center recommended by the company’s EAP, and his employer had told Moorer he’d have a job after completing treatment. Oops.

Keep it professional

Like Donald Trump, you might have all kinds of personal feelings about people who abuse alcohol. (Remember when Trump told Khloe Kardashian—right before uttering “You’re fired!” on The Apprentice—that he “hates” people who drink and drive? Kardashian had missed a task while attending a DUI class.)

Still, when it comes to real or perceived alcohol-related performance issues, keep it professional and proceed as you would with any other significant performance issue. Stick to the facts (“Mary, you’ve called out sick seven times in the last six weeks and missed the Lowenstein deadline twice without explanation”) and keep to yourself any opinions about what might be fueling the problematic behavior.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t say “I know an alcoholic when I see one, Mary! Either go into treatment or you’re fired!”

Instead, consider something like, “Mary, our EAP is here to assist employees with personal problems. Counselors are available 24/7 to talk. Here’s a card with the number.”

You could even go so far as to say:

“Mary, fighting is grounds for termination, but we value your work and your loyalty. So rather than firing you (which is within our rights to do), we’re referring you to our EAP. If you don’t follow the EAP’s recommendations, and if your performance doesn’t improve, we’ll have no choice but to rethink our decision.”

Of course, you’ll want to get your attorneys involved and follow THEIR recommendations.

Let’s all raise our (virtual) glasses to the beginning of a Happy Holiday Season free from all alcohol- (and other) related problems!

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