HR Management & Compliance

Investigating Substance Abuse the Right Way

Yesterday’s Advisor discussed the problem of substance abuse in the workplace as well as the laws regarding this issue. Today we’re covering how to investigate suspected abuse—and what to do if such abuse is discovered.

To recap: It’s estimated that close to 10 percent of the U.S. population over age 12 has a substance abuse problem—and most of those substance abusers are employed. Employees who are working under the influence are three times more likely to have job accidents than other employees. They’re also more likely to take more days off and to have a drop in performance even when they’re on the job. In addition, workplace use of alcohol and drugs is a problem that costs American businesses more than $100 billion annually.
Clearly, businesses need to know how to identify and deal with this frequent problem.

How to Identity a Potential Problem

When investigating possible drug or alcohol use, ask:
Is there unusual behavior taking place, such as more frequent absences, policy violations, or even illegal activities?
What specific behavior is visible? Early warning signs of substance abuse include:

  • Inexplicable fall-off of work efficiency;
  • Excessive tardiness and absenteeism;
  • Accidents, near misses, and errors;
  • Changes in appearance;
  • Heavy use of breath sweeteners;
  • Mood swings;
  • False confidence;
  • Fatigue; and
  • Mental slowdown.

Does the situation involve an individual or a group?
Are reliable witnesses available?
Is there a specific policy that applies to the situation?
What are the physical dangers of taking or not taking action?
Is the situation serious enough to call security or law enforcement?
Is it necessary to call in an expert for consultation with HR, the Employee Assistance Program, a health specialist, or security?
Does the situation call for reasonable-suspicion testing?
Is this an opportunity to prevent a problem from escalating?

Fulfill Your Role

If you are a supervisor, you play a key role in dealing with substance abuse in your department because you are on the front line of substance abuse awareness campaigns. This puts you in a unique position to impress on your employees the seriousness of the problem and to give them useful information.
You are also the person who has primary responsibility for communicating company policy concerning drugs and alcohol. And you are the one who monitors your employees’ performance, which means you are most likely to notice the kind of behavior that indicates a possible drug or alcohol problem.
Keep records of employee performance, including a log of accidents and near misses, to establish a basis for comparison to help you recognize developing problems so that you can improve the chances of getting employees early, beneficial intervention. These records also give you solid support for your supervisory actions.
It is your job to refer substance abusers to professionals who can help them. This is an important point because you should never try to fill the role of physician or therapist yourself. Although you can be a strong and sympathetic supporter, employees with substance abuse problems need professional assistance.
Maintain confidentiality when you discuss personal substance abuse issues with an employee, both because employee privacy law requires such discussions to be kept strictly confidential and because it’s more likely that the employee will seek help if assured confidentiality.
Finally, you may be called on to administer discipline—or at least to warn employees that discipline may be used if the employee does not take the required steps in the rehabilitation process.
For more information on Alcohol Awareness Month, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *