All You Need To Know About Substance Abuse At Work

Substance abuse can be considered an employer's worst nightmare.  However, unlike nightmares, substance abuse is a real problem in any work environment.

According to reports from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), approximately 78% of the 14.8 million US citizens who utilize illegal drugs are working in full or part-time employment.  Due to the fact that Americans spend the majority of their time at work, it is likely that the staff member's problems with alcohol or illicit drugs will spill over into the work environment. This makes it essential for the employer to know how handle the staff member's addiction, as well as the associated issues of whether to fire or retain the individual.

When you face the challenging situation of whether or not to retain or dismiss a staff member with an alcohol or drug issue, it is recommended that you keep these five tips in mind:

Tip #1:  Considering Whether Or not The Employee's Substance Abuse is Endangering Or Harming Other Staff Members

Your personal safety and the safety of all staff members must be your first priority, particularly as this can directly influence productivity.  According to reports from the NCADD, approximately one-fifth of managers and workers report drinking by co-workers as being a cause of jeopardizing their safety and productivity.  Reports also show that approximately 35% of patients experiencing an occupational injury are 'at-risk' drinkers.

If a staff member's substance abuse has resulted in injury being caused to other members of staff or you, this is grounds for immediate termination.

For example, if the substance using employee was operating dangerous equipment while under the influence of alcohol and injured co-workers.

Tip #2:  Consulting Company Policy
All companies should have detailed written policies regarding what actions must be taken in these particular cases.  Company policy for substance abuse in the workplace is often zero tolerance, and this should be conveyed in the company guidelines and with orientation materials around the business.  All employees need to be made aware of these policies, and the same policy needs to apply to all individuals regardless of their position; for example, the higher-up executive must be treated in the same manner as a worker on the warehouse floor.  Special treatment with exceptions on company policies are not beneficial for staff morale, and it can 'come back to bite you in the butt'.

If no such company policy exists, it is recommended that you refer to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management handbook for supervisors regarding substance abuse in the work environment.  The principles outlined in the handbook were written with alcoholism in mind, but can be applied to cases of illicit drug use.

Tip #3:  Evaluating If And How Substance Abuse Is Influencing A Staff Member's Productivity And To What Extent
As a company employer, you need to consider the overall bottom line.  You pay employees to perform duties, and if they are not performing the tasks adequately, they must be held accountable.
In these cases, the specific context of the situation is highly significant, and the employee must be evaluated.  Previous performance assessments need to be examined, as well as the length of time they have been at the company, and any previous issues related to substance abuse.  In certain cases, the substance abuse 'slip-up' may be a first offense and could warrant a disciplinary warning with appropriate steps to help the individual gain treatment.

For example, if the employee has a long track record of high performance with low absentee records, then you need to take this into account.  If they only recently began to call in sick or show up late, then it may be better to offer the individual a second chance via referral to an employee-assistance program with appropriate treatment.  

Termination of the staff member is not always necessary after conducting an evaluation of their personal profile.

Tip #4:  Gauging The Individual's Level Of Problem Ownership And Their Motivating To Deal With It

Taking the above case, for example.  You need to determine if the staff member expresses a true concern and act of contrition regarding their use of alcohol or drugs, and how it compromises their ability to perform effectively at work.  Is the person serious about undergoing treatment, and are they willing to change their situation?
Answers to these questions can help you choose whether or not to retain the employee or fire them.  

If they are unable to admit having an addiction problem or reject supervisory feedback, this is a warning sign.  If not a termination, this could be the ground for an ultimatum that if they are unwilling to deal with their addiction and demonstrate motivation to receive help, they will lose their job.

Tip #5:  Employees Wanting To Pursue Substance Abuse Treatment Can Have Job Protection Under Federal Law

According to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, employees are protected from job loss while undergoing treatment in a residential treatment center for substance abuse, as long as they are able to perform the task safely and effectively.  Based on the Family Medical Leave Act, a substance abuse disorder can be qualified as a serious health condition granting eligible employees approximately twelve weeks of job-protected unpaid leave.  

This means that if your employee is eligible for these benefits, you are unable to fire them.

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