Addressing Alcohol and Drug Use at Work and After

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of articles that will be taking a look at challenging situations that may be facing your workforce. Lynne Eisaguirre began the series by tackling How to Deal with Problem Employees Within the Limits of the Law. She also wrote about Dealing with Rumors in the Workplace Before it Becomes Defamation and Basic Employment Law Principles When Dealing with Workplace Violence.

Most workplaces have policies against alcohol and drugs at work and you have every right to enforce those, as you should. You move into gray areas when employees have drinks after work or when someone appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs on the job.

After work Drinking
Many workplaces have social situations that encourage drinking. Silicon Valley companies host Friday afternoon beer busts. Law firms may have bars or sherry sipping. At a construction site, the boss and his workers may hit the local bar or even hang around the lot drinking after hours. Sales departments may be expected to wine and dine clients.

Many employers think that this drinking benefits the bottom line by encouraging informal networking. The problem is that you can create legal liability. If the company provides free drinks and drunken employees hurt themselves, they can claim workers' compensation. Because the drinks were free, the courts have found that the employees did not voluntarily become intoxicated.

On the other hand, if a company party is completely voluntary and the employer charges for drinks, the company isn't liable for workers' compensation when employees hurt themselves.

Free booze or not, if a drunk employee injures another employee, that person can claim benefits from the company. If the drunken employee drives away from the party and kills or injures a third party, the company may be held liable the same as any other social host or the restaurant bartender.

As a manager, your job is to keep employees safe and prevent accidents. Be careful not to push alcohol on others. Serve as a good role model by monitoring your own and your employees' drinking. If employees seem visibly intoxicated, you shouldn't allow them to work or drive. Call a cab if you have to.

When Employees Appear To Be Under the Influence at Work
First, be very careful about making judgments about the causes of anyone's incapacity at work. Many other kinds of medical conditions can mimic alcohol or drug problems. Your job as a manager is to focus on performance. If you see performance problems, instruct the worker what proper performance looks like. You have to be very cautious about accusing anyone of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol because doing so could be considered a violation of privacy.

Workers have a right to keep their private life private. If they have drug and alcohol problems that are serious enough to require medical attention, that may lead to a leave request or a disability claim.

When you see someone behaving in a way that leads you to suspect alcohol or drug use, figure out how it interferes with individual or team performance. If it doesn't interfere with individual or team performance, STOP! Why are you addressing this? You need to have a business reason to do so.

When you do decide to intervene, here are some examples of appropriate things to say:

Employee Conversation Don'tsEmployee Conversation Do's
You're drinking too much You came in late five times at the client dinner and you slurred your words
You were drunk at the party You took off your clothes and danced on the table.
You're stoned You fell asleep at your machine

As usual, you need to document, document, document the specific behavior and performance problem. If the behavior doesn't improve, counsel, or warn the employee and put them on a performance plan. Ultimately you can terminate them if they don't shape up.

All this doesn't mean that you can't be compassionate if someone is unfortunate enough to be mired in drug and alcohol problems. You can certainly say some version of this:

"If there's anything going on at work that's affecting your performance, please let me know. If there's anything that's going on in your personal life that's affecting your performance, that's none of my business but we do have employee assistance so you may want to contact them."

And then, of course, if they do come up with some specific complaint about their drug or alcohol issues, you can be empathetic and deal with that. You want to open that door but not walk through it. Unless you're a trained medical professional, therapist, or recovering alcoholic or addict yourself, you want to stay away from giving advice in this area. Simply stay compassionate but focus on performance and enforce the specific boundaries and performance standards that your workplace requires. It can be very tempting to want to rescue someone in this situation but you won't be doing any good by trying to handle it yourself.

Lynne Eisaguirre is a former practicing employment attorney whose media credits include CNN Headline News, ABC News, Bloomberg TV, U.S. News & World Reports, The Boston Globe and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many others. She presents speeches and workshops on management issues to clients such as Bristol Myers Squibb, Harley Davidson, Sun Microsystems and Southwest Airlines. You can reach Lynne at: