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Cleaning House: Trash the Person or Problem?

(Summer 2012 [updated Spring 2019])

Kate and Jack* are both intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of their small, prosperous manufacturing company. Kate’s primary focus is on HR and safety issues, and Jack is devoted to sales and high-level operations. Employee turnover is low, their management team is solid, and they have fought to keep their employees working despite financial challenges common within their industry.

Ron*, a long-time employee with technical expertise in their niche market, drinks too much and over the years has come to work smelling of alcohol. But Ron’s a great employee. According to Kate and Jack, he’s “the best we have … part of the family.”

Jack has repeatedly handled Ron’s problem by sending him home when he smells of alcohol, directing him to “get it together” before coming back. Kate, on the other hand, is ready to make a formal referral to their Employee Assistance Program, keeping him off the job until the counselor says he can return and terminating him if he doesn’t follow through. Some of Ron’s peers are asking why he hasn’t been fired.

*fictitious names

According to an annual report conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 74% of heavy and binge drinkers* and nearly 70% of current illicit drug users are employed. And the ways in which employers respond to individuals who misuse substances are countless. Some are enablers (like Jack), some are willing to tackle it head-on (Kate), and others are intolerant and want to throw employees off the job (Ron’s peers). Still, others accept it as part of doing business or will completely ignore the problem in hopes it will disappear.

Whatever the response, many people misuse alcohol and illicit drugs, and expecting those who do to leave it at the threshold of the workplace door is both antiquated and unrealistic.

So how should a company respond? Employers need to determine their approach when there are different objectives to balance: the hassles and risks associated with employees misusing substance, caring for an employee by helping him/her to “get it together,” protect the investment the company has made in the employee.

It is always preferable to get out ahead of a problem.  Have measures in place that can help prevent alcohol/drug problems from entering the workplace. An effective drug-free workplace program (DFWP) is a place to start:

  • Establish clear expectations about the use and misuse of alcohol/drugs as it affects the workplace and consequences for violating those expectations.
  • Drug and alcohol testing can serve as a deterrent.
  • Provide resources for employees who are struggling with an alcohol/drug problem and the assurance that they can access these resources confidentially.

For problems that are already showing themselves in the workplace, a company needs to have a standardized policy for action – another reason to implement a drug-free workplace program.

When it comes to dealing with an employee who is misusing a substance, before determining what actions to take a company first must consider any governing bodies to which they are subject.  The company needs to assure that it is in compliance with any mandates (e.g., federal government mandates [Department of Transportation], state guidelines for workers’ compensation premium discounts, professional licensing authorities) that stipulate, for example, whether a “second chance” must or cannot be offered to an employee misusing a substance. If no such directives exist, the company’s leadership must take an educated stand to determine which approach best matches their corporate philosophy, operational logistics and business stance.

It is important to note the workplace milieu can be very influential in motivating employees to get help. Retaining one’s job can be a powerful incentive.  Supervisors can connect a troubled employee to appropriate services, helping to avoid the immobilization that often occurs when people try to find services on their own.  Additionally, a supervisor and the company will hold the employee accountable to his/her treatment, which is typically a struggle for the employee’s friends and family members. According to a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, individuals who are coerced into treatment by their employer were more likely to comply with treatment and stay in treatment than those who entered on their own accord.

When determining what direction to take with a violating employee, employers should carefully assess the financial and institutional benefits of offering a second chance vs. terminating the employee. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, depending upon the position, replacing an employee can cost 16% to 200% of the employee’s annual compensation. These figures do not capture many of the other costs a company may experience with the loss of an employee such as

  • Lost productivity: It can take a new employee 1-2 years to reach the productivity level of an existing person.
  • Lost engagement: Other employees who see high turnover tend to disengage and lose productivity.
  • Customer service and errors: Being short staffed and/or having less experienced employees can lead to longer wait times and fewer problem-solving resources.
  • Cultural impact: Whenever someone leaves others take the time to ask “Why?“ and remaining staff can be overworked.

Statistically, most employers will experience Jack and Kate’s dilemma and need to be consistent with their approach to handling such problems. Ideally, a company takes measures to help employees prevent substance abuse problems. However, implementing a drug-free workplace program will help an employer in both circumstances.

Whether a company decides to terminate an employee whose problem compromises the workplace or they determine to institute a second chance approach, other corporate policies and practices may need to be adjusted so it all works together seamlessly (e.g., disciplinary, time off policies). Employees need to be educated about the company’s stand and the actions that will occur if an employee’s problem shows up on the workplace. Supervisors need to be trained about their role in the process.

Having a rational and educated approach to handling alcohol/drug problems will assure the health and well-being of both the employee and his or her workplace and, in the long run, save dollars.

*As defined by SAMHSA, binge drinking happens when one consumes five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days and heavy use is consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days.

DISCLAIMER: This publication is designed to provide accurate information regarding the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that those involved in the publication are not engaged in rendering legal counsel. If legal advice is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.