What Every Manager Should Know about Drug or Alcohol Use at Work:

Posted on December 30, 2013 by VITAL WorkLife

Young man during therapy at psychologists office-1

I didn't sign up for this, These guys are my friends, Heck, I drink with them sometimes. These are just a few of the justifications managers may use when asked why they didn't intervene as soon as they became aware that one or more of their direct reports was struggling with substance abuse.

While most managers are willing to confront illegal drug use—because they are less apt to use illegal drugs themselves—it's harder to confront misuse or abuse of legal drugs. When does reasonable accommodation for an employee taking pain medication after surgery become reasonable certainty that the employee's drug use, even though legal, is becoming a performance issue?

Alcohol is another touchy issue. Many managers enjoy an occasional cocktail or may have come to work at some point in their careers feeling a little worse for wear. A hope that the employee may pull it together without an embarrassing confrontation combined with a reluctance to criticize behavior they may themselves have exhibited makes many managers reluctant to intervene.

The problem is that however well-intentioned such managers or supervisors may be, their reluctance to intervene is putting a financial burden on their organizations, may be putting other employees and customers at risk—and is doing nothing to help the struggling employees.

Substance Abuse at Work

Over the course of a year in which a national survey was conducted:

  • More than 2 million people used illicit drugs during work hours
  • Approximately 3 million workers used an illicit drug within 2 hours of reporting to work
  • 7% used alcohol during the workday
  • 9% reported they had worked "hungover"1

The costs associated with this use are enormous. According to the US Department of Labor, alcohol and drug abuse has been estimated to cost American businesses roughly $81 billion in lost productivity in just one year—$37 billion due to premature death and $44 billion due to illness. Of these combined costs, 86% were attributed to drinking.

Those figures don't take into account the damage done to morale and team member productivity caused by a person who comes to work later, calls in sick more often and does 33% less work while getting paid the same salary as employees who follow the rules.

In most states, you also have a legal obligation to confront substance abuse in the workplace. Ignorance isn't an acceptable excuse—particularly if the behavior was widely observed but you chose to overlook it. Your liability is greater if you ignore the problem.

Reasonable Suspicion:

Signs of Alcohol or Drug Abuse

"An employee doesn't have to be dancing around with a lampshade on his or her head," notes Matt Steinkamp, vice president of service delivery, training and consulting for VITAL WorkLife. "Reasonable suspicion often grows from an accumulation of observed behaviors, not just one specific event."

According to Steinkamp, managers and supervisors should pay attention if an employee exhibits one or more of the following performance issues:

  • Increased absenteeism and tardiness
  • Decreases in attention to job detail
  • Unaccounted for time on the jobsite
  • Changes in mood, e.g., angry, depressed
  • Strange behavior, e.g., borrowing money, overreacting

"There may or may not be an alcohol or drug abuse problem, but these are all performance problems which need to be addressed, regardless of the underlying cause," explains Steinkamp.

Additional signs of potential alcohol or drug abuse problems include:

Behavioral or Physical Changes: Short attention span, agitation, aggression, confusion, tiredness, changes in hygiene, unusual talkativeness or silence, slurred speech, poor coordination, loudness, odor of alcohol emanating from mouth or body

Job-Performance Changes: Accidents, missed deadlines, carelessness, disinterest, abrasiveness or inability to work as a team

Mood Changes: Swings between happiness and sadness, withdrawal, suspicion or paranoia, nervousness, irritability, defensiveness

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.

"Don't be afraid to make the call or ask for help in preparing to confront the employee," says Steinkamp. "We can coach you through every step of the process and rehearse what you might say if the employee reacts with denial, anger or tears."

Acting on Reasonable Suspicion:

A Four-Step Process

If you've observed and documented an employee exhibiting signs of alcohol or drug abuse, here's how to act on that suspicion.

  • Prepare for the meeting with the employee: Consult with HR and/or your VITAL WorkLife EAP to make a plan for confronting the employee. Collect objective data and get confirmation whenever possible (e.g., "I observed your speech was slurred. Supervisor A confirmed she had also noticed slurred speech.")
  • Meet with the employee in private: Be specific. Use the information you've gathered to demonstrate to the employee that you have a "reasonable suspicion" of drug or alcohol use and that testing will be required—and that refusal to be tested may be grounds for termination of employment. Someone should accompany the employee to whatever testing facility your organization uses. Be prepared for emotional responses—don't get distracted by excuses, complaints, tears or threats. Stay focused on performance expectations and consequences. Document what occurred during the meeting
  • Make a Formal Referral: If the tests reflect drug or alcohol use, refer the employee to VITAL WorkLife for a mandatory chemical dependency assessment. VITAL WorkLife will perform the assessment and make recommendations back to you, your organization's HR department and the employee. Treatment options that may be recommended for your employee may include:
    • Abstinence with or without random testing
    • AA involvement with a sponsor
    • Educational class (6-24 hours)
    • Outpatient treatment (20+ weeks/twice a week/3 hours each)
    • Structured outpatient treatment—with sober housing
    • Detoxification center
    • Inpatient hospitalization—with medical detoxification
  • Return to Work: When the employee returns to work, be clear about expectations and follow through with the employee. It's your responsibility to support the employee but they need to own and commit to a plan for a successful return to work, including completing the treatment/education program that has been recommended.

At Every Step of the Process, VITAL WorkLife can help

Confidential counseling, coaching and support are included as part of the VITAL WorkLife EAP. If you haven't done an intervention before or you would like some additional support, don't hesitate to contact us.

It may be that an employee who is unable or unwilling to remain free of substance use will have to be terminated. It's important for you as a supervisor to know that you aren't responsible for the outcome—good or bad. Many managers who've extended themselves to help a struggling employee feel betrayed or have a sense of failure when an employee relapses. If you'd like to talk through how an intervention has affected you or your attitude toward your job, feel free to contact VITAL WorkLife as often as needed.

"The statistics for recovery improve with EAP intervention and treatment, but it doesn't work for everybody and it may not work in time for the employee to keep his or her job at your company," concludes Steinkamp. "Yet many people with long sobriety credit the person who fired them for giving them the wake-up call that saved their lives."

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)
  • Is Drug Addiction Treatment Worth the Time and the Cost?
  • Signs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace
  • The Disease of Alcoholism in the Workplace
  • Top 12 Reasons Why a Good Drug-Free Workplace Program Goes Bad


Log on to your member website by clicking member login above to access these resources or contact us online.


1Frone, MR. Prevalence and Distribution of Alcohol Use and Impairment in the Workforce and in the Workplace: Findings and Implications from a U.S. National Survey. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 2006, pp. 856-869.

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