Home Supervisors are the “Avengers” in DFWP Programs

Supervisors are the “Avengers” in DFWP Programs

(October 2022)

There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so when we needed them, they could fight the battles that we never could …”

– Nick Fury, from The Avengers


Front-line supervisors sit in a power position and can make or break a company’s drug-free workplace (DFWP) efforts. They serve as the eyes, ears and noses of the company and set the stage for how issues will (or won’t) be addressed. Research indicates they can also directly influence an employee’s decision to drink or use illicit drugs on, and possibly even off, the job.

The “Workplace Substance Use: A National Prevalence Study” found that employees with supervisors trained to notice signs of alcohol and other drug misuse and willing to act on those symptoms were less likely to drink or use illicit drugs on the job. The study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), also indicated that, under these circumstances, illicit drug use off the job declined.

The findings suggest that this effect on employee behavior only happens when employees believe their supervisor is trained and willing to take corrective action. Simply having frequent contact with a supervisor was not a strong deterrent.

Mindful of this dynamic, it is advantageous for company owners and high-level decision makers to recognize the obstacles that can stand between supervisors and their willingness to properly address workplace substance misuse issues. Common obstacles include

  • Pressure to produce vs. commitment to safety – Ask any safety manager to describe their biggest challenge on the job and it will likely include negotiating production time to implement safety measures (e.g., training, procedures). Supervisors feel the same pressures when faced with the need to drop everything to deal with an alcohol or other drug issue. These issues take time, and often it’s time the supervisor just does not feel is available.
  • Personal relationships with employees – Employees promoted into supervisory positions often find themselves awkwardly managing friends and family members. This can be particularly awkward if the newly promoted supervisor has a history of socializing off the job with the same employees they must now manage.
  • Lack of clear procedures – Confronting a possible substance misuse problem in the heat of the moment can be daunting. The lack of clearly defined action steps may lead the supervisor to either avoid the situation or “shoot from the hip.”
  • Overconfidence – Properly addressing an employee who is misusing substances is rarely intuitive. While it might seem like a good idea to throw the employee suspected of misusing a substance off the job, it can be counterproductive (and dangerous) if the employee gets behind the wheel or no action is taken to minimize the misuse won’t happen again. Overly confident (and undertrained) supervisors tend to act alone without acknowledging the need to implement policy and/or reach out for assistance.
  • Employee morale – Supervisors need a workforce that is 110% willing and able to get the job done. Taking issue with an employee’s alcohol/drug use may diminish that commitment if a supervisor is viewed as a “narc” vs. a policy enforcer. 
  • Personal substance misuse issues – Supervisors who misuse alcohol or other drugs are likely to either ignore employee problems or rationalize those problems to the point that they don’t seem worth addressing (i.e., by joking about it, minimizing or defending the use).

While understandable, these obstacles can jeopardize the safety, public image, productivity and liability of the company and, in certain circumstances, the supervisor. Proper selection of supervisors and effective training, however, can effectively eradicate these obstacles.

Attributes of a successful supervisor, particularly as they apply to DFWP issues, include a commitment to overall company goals and safety, “buy-in” of the DFWP program, confidence in their role in enforcing the policy, effective communication and humility to learn and take directives.

Training, real training, as referenced in the NIAAA study, must provide supervisors with specific steps in enforcing the policy, motivation to follow through with directives and opportunities to practice relevant supervisory skills. Supervisors must also have the sense that they will be supported in their efforts to keep their jobs drug-free.

Supervisors truly are in a power position with your DFWP program. Harness that power to leverage the best for your company and workforce.