HR Management & Compliance

How to Combat Drug or Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

Drug or alcohol abuse in the workplace is obviously a serious concern, and a recent report describes how drug use in the workforce is on the rise. Not only could the employee be putting him- or herself at a health risk, he or she may also be putting other employees at a safety risk. And, of course, there’s a concern of reduced performance and productivity.

Let’s take a look at some reasons an employer may suspect drug or alcohol abuse and then some tips on how to handle it.

Reasons Employers May Suspect Drug or Alcohol Abuse

There are actually a lot of different employee actions that may cause the employer (or coworkers) to suspect an employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Here are some of the possible signs to watch out for:

  • Significant speech changes, such as slurring or incoherence.
  • Out-of-character personality changes, such as increased swearing, sarcasm, argumentativeness, paranoia, extreme defensiveness, or other attitude changes.
  • Inability to walk normally or inability to remain steady on his or her feet.
  • Having abnormally flush, sweaty, or pale skin.
  • Changes in ability to maintain proper hygiene or other noticeable changes in appearance, such as sudden weight changes. This could also include problems with dental hygiene, including foul-smelling breath.
  • Changes in work performance, including missing deadlines or regularly showing up late or being absent unexpectedly. This could also manifest as minor workplace accidents.
  • Changes in behavior, like sudden lack of participation in social groups or a sudden unwillingness to talk about home life.
  • Other signs of physical distress, such as persistent coughing, sniffling, or other signs of seeming physically unwell.
  • Becoming more secretive, or even possibly lying or stealing.

It’s important to remember that just because an employee exhibits one or more of these signs, it’s not a guarantee that drug or alcohol use is to blame. Employers should be careful to proceed with caution. Substance abuse is a complex topic and should be handled delicately when suspected.

Tips for Employers Combating Drug or Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

If you or other employees suspect possible drug or alcohol abuse, here are some tips:

  • Remain objective. If drug or alcohol abuse is suspected or reported by a coworker, the employer should remain objective and focus on the verifiable facts.
  • Document the situation. Is the employee struggling with being on-time or not showing up for work as scheduled? Has the quality of their work diminished? Document the problems as you would for any other employee.
  • Follow your own policies. Does your organization already have a progressive discipline policy in place? If yes, that may be the first place to turn when addressing suspected substance abuse. Focus on the problems—performance or otherwise—and use disciplinary procedures just as you normally would. This allows you to treat employees in a consistent manner as much as possible.
  • Utilize your drug testing policy when appropriate. If your organization has a formal drug testing policy, it can also be utilized. For example, some workplaces have drug-testing policies that allow employees to be tested when there is a reasonable suspicion of use. (Such policies are usually legal, but be sure to consult legal counsel with specific questions when creating such a policy.) Be sure that the reasonable suspicion is based on objective evidence—not just hearsay.
  • Create new policies if necessary. If you do not already have substance abuse and drug-testing policies in place, consider creating them. This will allow you to be more consistent going forward.
  • Act in a timely manner. When substance abuse is suspected, don’t wait to address the problems that are occurring. Putting things off never helps.
  • Once substance abuse has been discovered, consider your options before taking action. There’s rarely only one option for how to proceed. For example, if your workplace has an employee assistance program (EAP) that could help the employee get treatment, recommending it may be a good course of action. (Clearly, there will be cases where more immediate action is necessary; the point is to consider the options.)
  • Remember that drug addiction and alcoholism can both be considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that employers have an obligation to treat employees fairly, even if substance abuse is suspected. It does not mean the employer must tolerate completely unacceptable behaviors, but be sure to consult with legal counsel before taking drastic measures.

Drug and alcohol abuse problems can quickly escalate—which is no good for the employee or the employer. Employees with substance abuse problems are more likely to cause workplace injuries and accidents and are more likely to be absent and/or less productive. This can affect morale, even if no one actually gets hurt.
Employers need to watch out for suspicious behaviors and react appropriately. Bear in mind, however, that these issues should be handled sensitively. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.

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