Reasonable Suspicion of Drug or Alcohol Use at Work: A Guide for Managers and Supervisors

Posted on January 2, 2011 by VITAL WorkLife

It's no fun—and often very difficult—to confront an employee you think may be abusing alcohol or drugs, but it's an important part of your job. Employees with substance abuse issues are:

  • Five times more likely to injure themselves or others on the job—and cause 40% of all workplace accidents
  • Costly—American companies spend or lose over $100 billion per year in lost productivity, accidents, damaged or stolen equipment and insurance premiums and workers comp claims
  • Absent without excuse twice as often and late for work 3 times more often
  • 33% less productive, but likely earn just as much as their peers, which often causes resentment and morale problems

"If your company has a stated policy regarding substance abuse, then an unwillingness to confront a troubled employee makes both you and the company more liable for the accidents and/or legal problems that almost certainly will occur," notes Deb Wood, senior consultant for VITAL WorkLife.

Reasonable Suspicion: Signs of Alcohol or Drug Abuse

"Reasonable suspicion" doesn't always rest on one obvious sign of coming to work under the influence, such as liquor on the breath, inability to walk a straight line, perform manual functions or slurred or repetitive speech. More often, it's an accumulation of factors or events, including:

  • Increased absenteeism and tardiness (coming in late every Monday, calling in sick every Friday
  • Unexplained, long or frequent disappearances from the jobsite
  • A decrease in attention to job detail or an increase in accidents
  • Unexplained, abrupt or radical changes in behavior such as violent outbursts, hyperactivity, extreme suspiciousness, frequent and/or extreme fluctuations of mood without a reasonable explanation

If you observe or hear about any of these behaviors, contact your HR department or a VITAL WorkLife consultant for guidance on how to collect, document and confirm information that will be needed to act on your suspicions.

"You want to make sure the information you have is both correct and substantiated by others wherever possible," says Wood. "You also want to use objective language like 'the employee's speech was slower and he was slurring," not 'the employee sounded like he had been drinking.'"

Acting on Reasonable Suspicion: A Four-Step Process

If you've observed and documented an employee exhibiting signs of alcohol or drug abuse, here are the four steps recommended when reasonable suspicion occurs:

  • Gather the information you've collected and use it to demonstrate to the employee that you have a "reasonable suspicion" of drug or alcohol use and that testing will be required. (Most organizations stipulate that employees under reasonable suspicion who refuse testing and/or the release of their test results are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.) Don't just send the employee off—someone should accompany him or her to whatever testing facility your organization uses.
  • If the tests reflect drug or alcohol use, fill out a Performance-Based Referral for Chemical Dependency form, submit it to VITAL WorkLife and instruct the employee to call for an appointment for a mandatory chemical dependency assessment.
  • VITAL WorkLife will perform the assessment (or make you aware that an employee hasn't contacted us within the specified time) and make recommendations back to you, your organization's HR department and the employee which may include one or more of the following treatment options:
    • Abstinence with or without random testing
    • AA involvement with a sponsor
    • Educational class (6-24 hours)
    • Outpatient treatment (20+ weeks/2 times a week/3 hours a session)
    • Structured outpatient treatment with sober housing
    • Detoxification center
    • Inpatient hospitalization, with medical detoxification if necessary
  • When the employee returns to work, it's your responsibility to monitor and follow up as recommended and agreed with your employee, your organization's HR department and VITAL WorkLife.

We Can Help

Confidential counseling, coaching and support is free as part of our EAP benefit. If managers haven't done an intervention before or would like some additional support, an EAP counselor can help guide them.

"For many managers and supervisors, this is the toughest part of their job," notes Wood. "Coaching and rehearsal can make it a lot easier."

Helpful Online Resources

The VITAL WorkLife website offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors deal with substance abuse issues, including the following articles:

  • A Manager's Guide to Alcoholism in the Workplace (nine-article series)
  • The Drug-Free Workplace, a Manager's Guide (four-article series)
  • Is Drug Addiction Treatment Worth the Time and Cost?
  • Sources of Help for Employees with Substance Abuse Problems
  • The Disease of Alcohol in the Workplace
  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Working" and pull down to "Effective Manager" and explore the articles in the category "Understanding Workplace Substance Abuse."

In addition, on the member portal landing page just above the "Your Work & Life Resources" button, the "Manager Resources" section has a "Performance-Based Referral" tab that contains more information, plus the forms you need to start a reasonable suspicion case.

Pathways to Well Being: call VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App!

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