Workplace intoxication may seem like a significant taboo, but it’s surprisingly common. Nearly 14 million American adults abuse alcohol, and drinking at work costs the nation between $33 billion and $68 billion annually. This issue deserves attention, but it’s also an uneasy one to approach.
An employer that notices a worker showing signs of intoxication may not know how to proceed. Alcohol abuse will affect the employee’s performance and those around them, so it requires action, but it’s also a sensitive issue. After all, alcoholism is a disease and often stems from challenging circumstances.
Here’s how company leaders can address workplace intoxication fairly and effectively.
Investigate and Record Findings
After noticing signs of alcohol abuse, the first step is to investigate it further. The last thing employers want to do is accuse someone of workplace intoxication only to find out the employee is perfectly sober. Closer investigations can help avoid that uncomfortable situation.
See if the employee’s co-workers have reported anything about them seeming intoxicated or smelling like alcohol. Since absenteeism is four to eight times higher among alcoholics, check the worker’s attendance and productivity records. Other signs to look for include bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, unusual performance issues and strained workplace relationships.
Employers should document all their findings to gather a formal record of evidence. These recordings can help protect against legal damages by showing that the investigation and any subsequent actions were conducted in good faith. Remember that throughout this whole process, the research must remain confidential.
Speak With the Employee Privately
Schedule a private meeting with the worker if all the gathered information points toward workplace intoxication. If possible, it may be best to do this with an HR representative present, too. They can step in if necessary to uphold the employee’s rights and take notes on the conversation for future reference.
Instead of accusing the employee of being drunk in the workplace, employers should ask them about their recent behavior. Present the evidence and ask the worker why these things are happening. There may be a reasonable explanation for it, such as switching to a new medication that produced similar symptoms to intoxication.
Remember to remain calm, even if the worker gets defensive. This conversation is for the employee’s good, so it’s important to keep that in mind and emphasize it.
If the worker does not offer a reasonable explanation but still denies being intoxicated, employers may consider an alcohol test. However, the worker can legally refuse it, and, depending on the area, it may be of questionable legality. Check with local laws about alcohol testing before having these conversations.
Refer Them to Assistance Programs
If the employee admits to intoxication or tests positive, it’s time to take action. The best course of action is not to fire them but to offer assistance. If the company has a formal employee assistance program, refer them to that, and if not, provide another way for them to get help.
It can be difficult for employees to recognize that they need help, especially men. Gender norms make many men believe they should address issues themselves instead of asking for help, but this can be harmful. In light of these obstacles, speak with kindness and point toward their declining performance, highlighting how alcohol is affecting their career.
Offer to contact local health departments or mental health centers to find qualified help for the employee. Remember that employers are not in a position to make formal diagnoses, so they can’t force any action here. However, they should refer workers to professionals who can diagnose them or offer assistance.
Make Workplace Accommodations
Alcoholism can be a protected condition under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Consequently, employers should make reasonable accommodations for workers struggling with this addiction.
Giving employees extra time off for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or similar programs is a good start. Employers should also be careful not to treat these employees any differently than workers who don’t suffer from alcoholism.
It’s also a good idea to ensure the employee has safe transportation options. Ignition interlock devices in company cars can prevent drunk driving, protecting the worker and other drivers. Setting up a carpooling system or covering the cost of public transportation could also help, as it discourages driving.
Employers may also want to review workplace activities and culture to ensure nothing enables intoxication. Having alcohol on the premises or encouraging activities that make light of its abuse could make the recovery process harder.
Set Goals With the Employee
At the end of the initial meeting or after an initial recovery period, employers should help set improvement goals. These can be behavior-related, performance-related or both. In any case, they should give the employee a clear path toward professional and health improvement.
Goal-setting can help the worker overcome this challenging issue. Studies show that those who create specific goals are 10 times more likely to succeed than those who don’t. People who write these objectives down are three times more likely to succeed. Workers should take full advantage of this opportunity, considering how challenging alcoholism can be.
Employers should schedule regular check-in meetings to help the worker track their progress toward these goals. This practice can be helpful for any kind of professional development, but it’s especially important when dealing with an issue like this.
Hold Employees Accountable
Employers should emphasize the consequences of failing to meet these goals. It’s important to be kind and considerate about this sensitive issue, but employees can’t overlook its impact on the workplace. Workplace intoxication can cause serious productivity, safety and relational damages, so it must carry consequences.
Repeat offenses may have to end in suspension or termination. Emphasizing these consequences to employees helps them understand the gravity of the situation and can motivate them to improve.
The best way to approach this accountability is to create a formal, written workplace code for intoxication. Define what consequences employees can face for first-time and repeat offenses and enforce them consistently. Hopefully, this will help workers move past the issue and make the workplace a safer, more productive place.
Workplace Intoxication Is a Difficult but Serious Issue
Employers should value the well-being of their employees, and issues like workplace intoxication threaten it. Addressing this issue can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it’s essential for worker health and company productivity. Following these steps can help businesses manage workplace intoxication effectively while remaining considerate.