Leadership Competencies

Addiction in the Workplace

Employees are every organization’s most valuable asset. CEOs and other top executives know that keeping their employees healthy, productive and committed to the organization ranks high among their priorities.

Drug and alcohol misuse is one of the most common and costly problems facing American business – and addictive behavior is not limited to the rank and file. Many C-level executives and other top executives struggle with addiction during their careers. Stress is a constant challenge no matter what‘s going on in the economy – or within a given organization. Stress fosters diverse “poor choice” behaviors – including addiction.

The moment of truth: you can no longer deny that a key employee’s behavior has crossed the line. Big achievement celebrations become excuses for embarrassing alcohol – fueled public displays. Staff nods knowingly when your key staff member takes yet another bathroom break during a critical negotiation. Or when it’s simply apparent that alcohol consumption or drug misuse is an integral part of this key employee’s workday.

How organizations respond to such situations is critical.

You know you’re in trouble: You begin to assess how much your organization’s reputation, know-how, and revenue generation may be riding on an employee whose ability to drive home safely is questionable.  You cannot imagine letting this behavior continue – it’s apparent that this situation will end badly. On the other hand, you’ve got other serious considerations. Intervening right now – creating predictable disruption – could mean staggering revenue and/or productivity losses.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, some substance misuse problems are not so evident. Managers may simply puzzle over an inexplicable decline in performance, productivity and connectedness. Absences or lateness may be the first telling indication. Discussions with the individual generally produce excuses and rationalizations – or maybe a promise to turn things around. Most organizations don’t have robust programs to deal with employee addiction effectively. Of course, the typical piecemeal interventions are the least effective when the problem employee is management.

My advice? Do not ignore the situation. These kinds of problems rarely work themselves out. Likely the situation will either get progressively worse or implode. Looking at this as a business issue argues for immediate action, but this isn’t just a business issue. A human being and often a family hang in the balance.

Pro-active tips and advice to help you coordinate effectively with HR :

  • Make sure that your organization has a written drug and alcohol misuse policy. Employees should understand these standards and their consequences when they are hired, including policies about drug and alcohol testing. Create an environment in which alcohol and substance misuse are neither stigmatized nor tolerated.
  • Check your employee health insurance plan. Make sure that your plan provides adequate coverage for evaluation and treatment of substance misuse. Just as your organization provides health information to employees about other critical health issues, provide education to employees about the health risks of drug and alcohol use and the benefits of early intervention.
  • Provide training and information to employees and management. Emphasize the negative consequences of alcohol and substance misuse on absenteeism, productivity, safety, employee morale and other mission-critical workplace issues. Give your supervisors training to identify drug and alcohol misuse and what to do if they suspect it.
  • Be vigilant about maintaining confidentiality. When addressing a suspected alcohol or substance misuse problem, focus on behaviors, such as lateness, absenteeism, or missed assignments – not the cause – when discussing the issue with others. Document what you hear and observe.
  • Keep the focus on behavior and performance in your discussions with the employee. Be specific as you review the various instances in which the employee failed to meet expectations. Talk about what you know to be factual in terms of alcohol and substance use, without labeling the behaviors as a disease or an addiction – that’s not your role.
  • Most often, these discussions will be met with denial, excuses, promises to improve performance and other efforts to sidestep the problem. Let the person know that change is imperative. Express concern for the employee’s well-being and that of the organization. Always be clear that you will maintain confidentiality about the nature of the problem and help them in any way possible.


Additional Resources:

Insight Business Works brings a team of psychologists uniquely qualified to identify substance misuse problems within your organization – and to formulate interventions helpful to your impacted employee and sensitive to the needs and concerns of your organization.

Category: Leadership Competencies Talent Management

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About the Author: Richard Juman

Dr. Richard Juman is the President of Insight Business Works, Inc. He is a New York Vistage member and psychologist with broad experience in healthcare management, organizational consulting, and executive coaching. As a CEO and psych

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