Don't Ignore the Signs of Substance Abuse

Some of the most common signs of substance abuse are things that aren't there -– namely, the employee and the employee's work ethic.

Unexplained absences and a decline in productivity might indicate an employee has a problem with substance abuse, noted Gordon Hughes, director of the employee assistance program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "The employee is probably missing Mondays or Fridays," Hughes said. "There's also a change in productivity. They were a good producer, they worked well, then there's a sudden change. It may or may not be alcohol, but something is going on, and that's a warning sign."

Unusual Behavior
It's important for employers and supervisors to heed these signs because employee substance abuse can have a far-reaching impact. Safety, productivity, and morale can all be compromised when an employee is impaired by drugs or alcohol, and it can raise health care costs, as well.

"If a person is using drugs or alcohol, they'll end up going to a doctor or emergency room with a number of different ailments that the average person would not have," Hughes said.

The signs of substance abuse are varied, depending on what is being ingested, and are sometimes contradictory. An employee with a substance abuse problem may be hyperactive and talkative or drowsy and sleepy. He or she may be hostile and threatening or emotional and teary. Supervisors should watch for an individual's change in behavior, appearance, or attitude, and document what is observed. Other signs to watch for include balance problems, such as stumbling or swaying, slurred or incoherent speech, or bloodshot or glassy eyes.

These signs or behavior changes do not necessarily mean that substance abuse is the cause; an employee may be dealing with a death in the family, problems at home, or a number of personal or health-related issues. If the behavior affects an employee's ability to do the job, however, a supervisor needs to document it and have a talk with the employee.

"I would definitely focus that conversation on the employee's job performance,” said Darlene Clabault, who answers inquiries from employers relating to substance abuse for compliance resource firm J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

Just the Facts
During this private meeting, it is important for the supervisor to stick to the facts about work performance: the number of days an employee has been absent or late and the quality of work. The supervisor should firmly explain the company's performance policy and drug-free workplace policy, and should enforce consequences if expectations are not met. Pointing to the policy lets the supervisor make the situation less personal.

"It's not that they are not in compliance with the supervisor. They are not in compliance with the policy," Clabault pointed out.

While the meeting should be fact based, a supervisor does not have to be cold. A good way to approach the topic is to express concern and note that it appears the employee is facing some challenges. "“You can ask, 'What can we do? How can we help?'" Clabault suggested.

The employee may admit to needing help, Hughes said, and may be referred to a company's employee assistance program. Initially, however, an employee often will deny having a problem. "They will want to hide that their drinking is getting out of control and will say nothing is wrong," said Hughes.

A supervisor should follow company policy and take progressive disciplinary action. This may involve warnings and can lead to suspension or termination. It often takes the threat of losing a job for an employee to make a change, Hughes noted. A job is part of a person's identity and means money and status, and the threat of losing it all can be the motivation a person needs to seek help.

"You may have to go pretty far down the disciplinary action path before you get their attention," Hughes said. "At first, they're in denial and they believe they can handle it. But it continues to get worse, and when their job is on the line, they will do almost anything to keep it."

A company's substance abuse policy may call for an employee to be taken to a facility for a drug or alcohol test. Drug tests are not generally considered medical exams under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so they do not need to be job related and consistent with business necessity, Clabault noted. But tests for alcohol are considered medical exams and therefore would need to meet such a requirement. Documenting observations can give a supervisor the information that's needed to show the employee needs to be tested. "There should be objective evidence that the employee is not able to perform the essential functions of the job," Clabault said.

If the employee tests positive, he or she may be referred to the company's employee assistance program. Because alcoholism is considered a disability, an employer has obligations under the ADA to accommodate an employee who needs time off for a support group meeting or a rehabilitation program.

Stick to the Rules
This does not mean, however, that an employer cannot insist on having a drug-free workplace. "The employer can say that employees can't be under the influence at work and can't drink on the job," Clabault said.

It can be difficult for a supervisor to initiate a conversation when drug or alcohol use is affecting an employee's performance, but the biggest mistake supervisors make is hoping that the problem will get better and go away on its own.

"That's the worst error -– hoping things will change because you know this person has worked here a long time, does a good job, and is just going through some problems," Hughes said. "That's a real disfavor to the employee. [Supervisors] need to tell the person something is wrong so they'll get that message and hopefully do something about it."

Terri Dougherty is an associate editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. (, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm that offers a diverse line of products and services (including substance abuse training for supervisors) to address the broad range of responsibilities held by human resources and corporate professionals. She is also the editor of J. J. Keller's LivingRight Health and Wellness Awareness kit. Drug awareness is the topic of the June Livingright kit.

Posted by Terri L. Dougherty on Apr 23, 2012