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HR Handled Right

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Joe X works in a small financial consulting firm that was founded by Mom and Pop. Over the past five years, he has gradually worked his way up to become second-in-command; in fact, he has developed so close a relationship with Mom and Pop that even the employees forget he’s not their son.

As Mom and Pop have gotten closer to retiring, they have begun to take a backseat in the day-to-day operations of their business and have left it up to Joe to keep the business going.

All heck breaks loose when a trusted secretary calls Mom and tells her that Joe has been sexually harassing her for the past six months. An outside investigation, conducted by yours truly, quickly discovers that these allegations are just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, Joe has a serious drug problem and has:

  • Fired employees for refusing to pick up marijuana for him
  • Sold drugs to his employees
  • Smoked marijuana in his office and during lunch
  • Threatened employees with dismissal if they communicated directly with Mom or Pop
  • Cost the company thousands of dollars because of the three-fold turnover since he was promoted to his position.

Then, there’s Charlie – the CEO of a large retail chain. Charlie’s wife died three years ago and since then, he hasn’t been the same. Senior employees constantly maneuver around him and Charlie, always a party-hardier, has made a complete boob out of himself at the last several company parties. No one has had the courage to speak to Charlie about his increasing moodiness, tardiness, or the smell of alcohol that is often on his breath. In fact, things only come to a head when several employees witness him drunkenly groping an employee, the victim employee threatens to file a lawsuit, and their outside counsel threatens to quit representing the company if they fail to take action.

It’s interesting that both of these scenarios came to a head because of offensive behavior complaints when the underlying problem was substance abuse in the workplace. Not only does a drug or alcohol problem cloud a person’s judgment, in a recent publication, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce indicated that typical drug users in today’s workforce are 3.6 times more likely to injure themselves or another person in a workplace accident; in addition, up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of industrial injuries can be linked to alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the signs and symptoms of substance abuse in the workplace and how an employer can proactively address the substance-abusing employee in his or her office.

You’re Not the Person I Hired

One of the sayings I frequently heard from ex-substance abusers during my internship stint on the drug/alcohol ward of a veterans’ hospital was this: You can’t have a real relationship with an alcoholic because s/he is already married to the bottle. Without question, a person who is dependent on drugs or alcohol is not the same person s/he was before using.

There are telltale signs of potential substance abuse problems early on: Is the employee’s quality of work inconsistent? Is the employee’s work pace slow, slower than usual, or sporadic? Does the employee have trouble concentrating on his work? Are there signs of fatigue? Other telling performance signs include increased mistakes, errors in judgment, and a sudden inability to fulfill complex assignments or meet deadlines.

At work, the most common signs of a drug are alcohol problem often look like this:

Personal Appearance – Comes to work inappropriately dressed; does not appear healthy or physically capable (e.g. slurred speech, unsteady gait, blood-shot eyes, sleepy); appears unclean or unwashed at the beginning of work; no regular change of clothes; offensive odors such as bad breath or body odor.

Dependability – Takes extended weekends (Monday/Friday absences); consistently late; leaves early; absent from work area; excessive sick leave; takes unauthorized leave; repeated absences, misses deadlines, doesn’t follow procedures.

Problem Solving – Solutions which are presented are usually ineffective; rarely follows through and checks for results; can’t handle complex assignments; tends to ignore problems or delegate inappropriately; relies too heavily on others to complete the work; cannot define the problem; covers up the problem; blames others, work frequently needs to be redone.

Job Knowledge – Skills are not current; doesn’t understand regulations; misuses equipment; doesn’t retain instructions; needs constant supervision; doesn’t understand or follow safety/security procedures; requires frequent instruction or assistance; learns very slowly; unable to work independently.

Productivity – Low volume of work; takes many breaks; wastes time; needs constant reminders to complete work; does not complete assigned tasks; overwhelmed by realistic workload; unavailable for extra work; cannot increase workload when needed; volatile; easily upset; inconsistent in the workplace.

Judgment – Makes decisions without regarding available information; will not reverse decisions in face of mistakes; insensitive; tactless; does not use common sense; illogical reasons for behaviors; violates confidentiality; poor ability to size up situations; does not understand the whole picture; takes inappropriate actions; inattentive to safety procedures

Working With People – Poor listening skills; inability to communicate; uncooperative; projects negative attitude to customers, co-workers, and the public; unable to resolve conflicts; openly mistrusts many people; edgy; easily and frequently angered or hurt by others; slows work of others; complains; is hostile; argues; stimulates complaints from co-workers; tends to blame others.

Codependent No More

It’s hard to see someone you care about slowly throwing his or her life away. Which is probably why the number one mistake managers make with regards to a substance-abusing employee is to overlook the employee’s problem – usually with the best of intentions. In fact, it’s often the best managers who fall into the trap of thinking if they pick up the slack or cover for the employee long enough, s/he will get his or her life back together and everyone will live happily ever after.

I’ve seen managers ignore performance or productivity problems, coworkers cover up for substance-abusing employee, and employees pick up the additional workload created by a substance dependent manager. You probably know someone whose let personal friendship or loyalty dissuade him or her from taking corrective action. Substance abuse-related or not, at some point we’ve probably all allowed a fear of confrontation to permit us to ignore a problem.

Unfortunately, not only do these “favors” ultimately hurt the receiver, they create legal liability for the employer through: 1) an increase in the likelihood the employee will engage in risky or inappropriate behavior; 2) a higher chance the person will be involved in on-the-job accidents; and 3) better odds the person will damage equipment or property. By recognizing and intervening to hold a substance abuser responsible for his/her own behavior, you are helping him/her to take the first step on the road to recovery.

Speak Up and Tread Lightly

What can supervisors say to employees suspected of drug abuse? What can’t they say? First of all, no manager should assume a job performance problem is a sign of drug abuse. Remember that stress, lack of sleep, and illness or health conditions can affect job performance. Even behavioral signs – like slurred speech or clumsiness – can be caused by a prescription medication. Accusing an employee of drug or alcohol use places the employer at high risk for a defamation lawsuit.

One symptom is often not enough reason to be concerned. But when a couple of signs can be put together–decreased productivity and an accident, for example–there could be cause for concern. In that situation, here are the steps that should be taken:

1. Observation: Managers and supervisors are responsible for making sure their employees meet certain minimum standards; if you do not currently have written performance standards, take steps now to develop and communicate a set of objective job performance standards that explain your expectations. Observe and document any time these standards are not being met.

2. Documentation: Train managers to document any time an employee is suspected of drug use by actions, appearance, or conduct while on duty. The report is to be completed within 24 hours of the observed behavior, and should focus exclusively on the observed behaviors and the impact of those behaviors.

3. Make a Plan: When meeting with an employee to document poor performance and measures to be taken, plan your meeting in advance. Set your goals for the meeting, anticipate the employee’s possible responses, and plan your reply. Know what resources are available.

4. Talk to the Employee: Have an appropriate second party, preferably someone from employee relations, attend as a witness and document your meeting. Limit your observations to specifics regarding the job performance.

5. Follow Up: Continue to monitor the employee’s progress. When an employee has undergone substance abuse treatment and returned to the workplace:

  • Offer no preferential or special treatment.
  • Give the individual plenty of feedback concerning his/her progress.
  • Continue to document observed behaviors.

Unfit for Duty

Safety is always an employer’s top consideration. If any doubt exists about an employee’s fitness to perform a specific task, take the employee off the job. When an employee is showing obvious signs of impairment (drowsy, careless, inattentive) on the job, the following steps should be followed:

  • Do not allow an individual with safety sensitive duties to operate any equipment.
  • Do not yell at or threaten him/her. Never argue with someone under the influence.
  • Do not confront an impaired employee in public. Bring him/her into a private office to discuss the situation. Have a witness present.

Never accuse anyone of alcohol or drug abuse. Even when there is overwhelming evidence of drug or alcohol use, you are taking an unnecessary legal risk to make the statement that an employee is an alcoholic, drug user, or addict. There is no risk in asking an employee what is wrong, or asking whether he/she is feeling all right.

In fact, there is an obligation to make an inquiry. There is no risk in recording what you saw or heard. Simply use your own eyes, ears, nose, and common sense and record your observations objectively. Do not give your opinion, or diagnosis of what the problem is even if you are correct. Make inquiries about observed behaviors, but do not diagnose!

Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse

There are many good reasons for creating a substance abuse policy and prevention program. Chief among them is safety – the safety of your workers, your customers, clients, and the general public. This is particularly true if the work being performed is of a safety-sensitive nature. Other common reasons could be to improve productivity; to control the costs of doing business, such as health care insurance, workers’ compensation, and accident insurance premiums; to increase the overall health and well-being of employees and their families and help them with their problems; and to minimize employee theft and other wasteful behaviors.

What the Policy Prohibits

The types of drug or alcohol use that are considered violations of your company’s policy will, in part, be determined by the input from your task force. While it may be obvious that all illegal drug use on company time will be prohibited, what will the policy say concerning off-duty use, criminal drug convictions, and being at work under the influence of illegal drugs even though the use took place elsewhere?

Also, how will the policy address alcohol use? Alcohol is legal and, in many circles, commonly used and accepted. It is also the most commonly abused substance in America. When measuring the impact of substance abuse on your company, ignoring the role of alcohol is almost like ignoring the problem altogether.

It is fully within the rights of a company to require its employees to report to work fit for duty. It also is completely appropriate to prohibit any employee from purchasing, manufacturing, transferring, using, or possessing illicit drugs while on company business. This includes work performed off company premises. You may also prohibit employees from being at work under the influence of illegal drugs and from abusing legal substances, such as prescription drugs or alcohol.

In general, an effective substance abuse in the workplace policy:

  • Applies to everyone, including top managers.
  • Encourages voluntary participation in substance abuse treatment, whenever possible, and assures the employee that job security will not be prejudiced.
  • Includes information about prevention, identification, treatment and rehabilitation.
  • Includes a program on the prevention of alcohol and drug related problems in the workplace through information, education and training.
  • Addresses how treatment or evaluation referrals are made.
  • Clearly explains the organization’s drug testing policy.
  • Describes the duties and responsibilities of the individual during and after treatment.
  • Encourages reviews of the policy and program at regular intervals.
  • Ensures employees that participation in treatment and information arising from that participation shall remain strictly confidential.
  • Makes clear that the procedures for assisting employees with substance misuse related problems are separate from the disciplinary procedure.
  • Addresses at what stage or in what circumstances the disciplinary procedures will be invoked, for example if an individual with a drug or alcohol related problem refuses assistance, denies the problem, or discontinues a course of treatment and reverts to unsatisfactory levels of performance and conduct.
  • Outlines which tasks are “safety critical,” so being under the influence of drugs or alcohol becomes an immediate disciplinary offense.

Blues singer Billie Holiday once said, “There is no solitary confinement outside of jail.” A drug or alcohol habit not only affects the addicted employee, it can wreak havoc on the work of coworkers and managers who must deal with him. An employer who proactively addresses workplace substance abuse through effective policies, procedures, and program is not only helping prevent an abusive or enabling work environment; s/he may ultimately help the employee escape from the prison of addiction

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