So you think you know your co-workers? Would it surprise you to know that there is at least one or two of your fellow employees that are working next to you who are “impaired”! And by impaired, I am implying that they are working under an altered state that is induced by an outside chemical influence. Yes, I’m talking about putting something into your body to ease anything from physical or mental pain, in a misled attempt to “enhance” cognitive functioning.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), only 4% of people with alcohol and drug problems are homeless or living in shelters. Where are the other 96%? They live near you or with you, and most of all they work beside you. It costs companies money to keep people working with an addiction problem. If managers do not deal with the issue it just gets worse and other workers can become the silent victims.
Use of illicit substances or misuse of controlled substances, alcohol, or other drugs is known as substance abuse. According to Ceridian, in its article “Drug Free Workplace Policies”, in the United States, the incidence of substance abuse is greatest among young single men. In addition it is stated that blue-collar workers are more likely than white-collar workers to abuse substances at work, although both groups have addicts.
- 77% of illicit drug users are employed
- More than 60% of adults know someone who has reported to work under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
- Alcohol and drug abuse has been estimated to cost American businesses roughly 81 billion dollars in lost productivity each year
- Alcoholism accounts for nearly 500 million lost workdays annually.
But why is this type of behavior in the workplace almost hitting epidemic proportions? Many individuals are facing work, family, and personal life pressures. Although most people manage these pressures successfully, some individuals have difficulty handing the demands of both a work environment and a home life. Specific events, such as death of a spouse, divorce or medical problems, can affect individuals who otherwise have been coping successfully with life’s pressures.
Addiction Affects Everyone on the Job
As a Senior Human Resources Executive, I was exposed to, experienced, and had to administratively deal with many instances of these types of substance abuse behaviors by employees. In one particular instance, a disturbing incident remains ingrained in my memory to this day.
It was reported to my HR staff and I that a department supervisor believed one of her employees would take his lunch break across the street at a TGIF restaurant. Eating at TGIF’s was not at all a problem in itself. However, it was also believed that this individual was consuming an alcoholic beverage during lunch and then would come back to work. When the employee was confronted with the concern he adamantly denied any such activity. After several weeks of “monitoring “the situation, there were no signs or indication of this person drinking alcohol. Thus, no further action was taken until we got “undeniable” proof that I unfortunately witnessed firsthand.
On one particular day, the employee that we initially suspected of returning to work inebriated came into my office after lunch. He was so drunk that he vomited in my trashcan. After the “involuntary expulsion of his liquid lunch”, he became very emotional. He stated that every day he would have a “Long Island Ice Tea” for lunch because that was the only way he could make it through the afternoon at work to help him cope with his abusive supervisor and his deteriorating relationship with is estranged wife.
As he sat there in my office, he stated that he had drunk three of these drinks and didn’t eat any lunch. When I asked him why he had so many, he stated; “I was planning on bringing in a gun to shoot my supervisor, and I just kept having one more to get my courage up.” After contacting the local authorities, a police search of his vehicle found a handgun. Unfortunately we continue to hear these types of stories more and more in today’s corporate environment.
Demands of productivity from supervisors and managers who have little or no “people skills” often increases the stress level in any work environment. Stress that keeps individuals from successfully handling the multiple demands that they face is one major concern. All people encounter stress, but when “stress overload” hits, work related consequences can result. Thus, leading to the search for a quick “outlet” and release of their stress overload. This causes concern because substance abuse can also cause an increase in withdrawal by the abuser in terms of physical and psychological attitudes. These types of cultural withdrawals promote antagonistic behaviors, which in turn may overall lead to workplace violence.
But why should you care? Use and abuse of alcohol and drugs has a detrimental effect on the productivity, attendance, and health of any work force. Concerns about substance abuse stem from the ways it alters work behaviors, causing increased tardiness, increased absenteeism, a slower work pace, a higher rate of mistakes, and less time spent focusing on specific work functions.
Unfortunately Many Managers Look the Other Way and Morale is Destroyed
Instances of drug and alcohol abuse has recently hit the media spotlight when on two separate occasions, employees at a Chrysler auto manufacturing plant were filmed going out to their cars drinking and partaking in some form of drug use during their lunch hour. According to fellow employees, this has been an ongoing situation and management was fully aware of these activities on company property. However just like most managers across the country, they did not confront the situation.
Peter Francis, Executive VP of Business Development at Permanent Solutions Labor Consultants worked in this environment for many years. He often shares his experiences as he watched his career go from the "best experience he ever had" to the "biggest nightmare he has ever lived". His experience shows us how not only does drugs and alcohol in the workplace affect production and morale; it also drives away good workers who are seeking their place in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Carroll notes:
"For nearly 9 years, I worked in an organization where the use of drugs was an on-going joke between employees and a very serious issue. It quickly became not funny when coworkers were lying in a coma or worse yet, they were dying. These people were naturally talented and great human beings, but their lives were literally wasted. They deserved much better. Upper management knew about the issue and seemed afraid to take a hardnosed stance because of a close personal relationship between the addicts and upper management. I felt like I was babysitting helpless children when trying to manage in this environment. I asked for the issue to be addressed by my superiors but nothing was done. Things became very tense and many good employees (including myself) left the company.”
Carroll further stated:
“I personally grew sick and tired of pulling their weight while watching them drool over their work area. A more hardnosed approach would have made the company stronger with a more engaged (and healthy) staff. It is not only a shame to allow this to happen but also a slap in the face to those who are addicted. Addiction is a serious illness. If this is a problem in your workplace, do yourself a favor and attack the issue head-on, it won't go away on its own!"
Why Management is often Afraid to Confront Addiction Issues
But why don’t Managers and company officials make an effort to stop this behavior? It’s because society has made us so sensitized to potential legal action that could have these offenders protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or better known as ADA. The ADA defines a covered disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity”.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are some employees who truly benefit from this law because it reduces the chances of discrimination of employment, and gives employees recourse when discrimination actually occurs. And there are individuals out there who genuinely need assistance to kick an addiction or overcome adversity. Yet, the court dockets are filled with individuals who are attempting to take advantage of the ADA to profit from their addictions.
In the very broad definition of the law the ADA states that a covered entity shall not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability. However, some case law shows that as an individual can now claim that they are a protected class if they acknowledge to an employer that they have a substance abuse problem. At which point it becomes more difficult to terminate that person without first trying to rehabilitate them or get them help. Yet at what point does an employer yell “Uncle”? And what message is being sent to the “Good” employees? That it is okay to abuse a substance and the company and the law will protect you? Oh but be late to work just one more time and sorry Johnny, and you’re fired!
According to management-side employment law attorney R.J. (Randy) Stevenson with Baird Holm LLP, the law might recognize some of these individuals as being “disabled” for purposes of the ADA. According to Stevenson:
“Alcoholism is generally regarded by the EEOC and the courts as constituting a “disability” for purposes of the ADA. This is especially true following the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which significantly broadened the definition of “disability.” Current users of illegal drugs have never been entitled to the ADA’s protection; however, drug users who have rehabilitated or are participating in rehabilitation and are not currently using illegal drugs may be protected by the ADA. It is often problematic for employers to determine whether an employee is a current drug user (not ADA-protected) or former drug user (ADA-protected) since the law does not state how long an individual must be “clean.”
Stevenson went on to note:
“The bottom line for employers when dealing with employees engaged in substance abuse is to deal with improper behaviors--not the employees’ conditions. For example, if an employee is an alcoholic he may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean his employer has to tolerate his violation of work rules. In other words, the employer doesn’t have to tolerate the employee showing up drunk for work, or the absenteeism and poor work product that may result from his alcoholism.”
The Solution: Behaviors, Consistency and Policy
Therefore, dealing with substance abuse is just another instance of the need for solid management/supervisor training (and then applying it in the workplace). Not only on dealing with substance abuse but training on how to be a true leader in any organization. The Americans with Disabilities Act affects how management can handle substance abuse cases. Good managers will deal with behaviors. But many managers do not know what to do, or choose to look the other way. If they finally become so frustrated that they want to terminate employment they do so (at their peril) because of the individual’s condition, and not their past improper conduct in the workplace. Moreover, had they recognized and dealt with the problem behavior at the onset they might have been able to encourage the employees to seek help for their substance abuse problems.
When the issue of workplace substance abuse is addressed by establishing comprehensive programs, it is a "win-win" situation for both employers and employees. In addition, managers and supervisors should be educated in how to recognize and deal with substance abuse issues and employees should be offered educational programs.
Workplaces are highly encouraged to establish a procedure or policy so that help can be provided in a professional and consistent manner. It is important for supervisors and managers to have a resource or procedure that they can rely on if the need arises. Employees need to know that everyone will be treated the fairly. It is the best way to avoid confusion and frustration in times that are already difficult.