Have you found yourself addressing concern for one of your workers who is showing signs of impairment due to alcohol or drug use while at work? CareersInGrocery.com wants to help you recognize the signs and symptoms, and the subsequent steps to take if the worker is indeed suffering from substance dependence.

Remember that observed symptoms can often be attributed to other factors, such as job dissatisfaction, or issues in other areas of the worker’s life. In some cases, the observed behavior could be the result of substance dependence, and it is important to know how to approach this situation as an employer.

Substance dependence in the workplace can be a confusing scenario and is best addressed according to the laws and guidelines outlined by your state, and company policy. An employee diagnosed with substance dependence will often require a medical leave of absence for some time as instructed by the employee’s medical practitioner.

Recognize the signs

Several changes in an employee’s attendance, performance, or behavior may be observed by you or a member of management. If you believe one of your employees may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at work, be aware of the following signs:

  • Changes in personality including erratic behavior (for example, increased interpersonal conflicts, overreaction to criticism)
  • Physical appearance of impairment at work (for example, odor of alcohol or drugs, glassy or red eyes, unsteady gait, slurring, poor coordination);
  • Working unsafely or involvement in an accident;
  • Failing a drug or alcohol test;
  • Consistent lateness;
  • Absenteeism; or
  • Reduced productivity or quality of work

Do not assume these signs are substance dependence! There could be many reasons for these signs such as:

  • A disability or temporary medical condition,
  • A conflict at work or home,
  • Job dissatisfaction or low morale,
  • The stress of balancing work and caregiving obligations; or
  • Personal problems unrelated to work.

Be aware that the employee may be experiencing some temporary challenges. However, the observed behavior might be the result of substance dependence. If you believe the observed signs indicate substance impairment, request to have a second management representative view and assess your observations. Train supervisors and managers on what to search for and provide a Suspected Employee Impairment Checklist.

Approach the employee

Once you notice an employee’s change in performance, attendance, or behavior, the next steps might be to talk to your employee. Signs that might indicate substance dependence could trigger a legal obligation in you to approach the employee and initiate a discussion about accommodating them. Depending on the rules and guidelines in your state and company, you might have a duty to speak with your employee about what is causing this negative performance.

Substance-dependent people might not recognize their need for accommodation or be willing to admit it to themselves. Fear of losing their jobs can also prevent them from seeking help. People suffering from substance dependence often deny they have a problem.

If your workplace has drug and alcohol testing, a duty to inquire is placed on you by a positive test result. Multiple conversations may be required with the employee because denial is a common characteristic of substance dependence.

Going forward

It is not your duty to diagnose substance dependence or recommend treatment. Instead, you should:

  • Be respectful, compassionate, and non-judgmental
  • Understand the employee might feel guilty, pressured, or stressed
  • Ensure the conversations are confidential
  • Issue concerns about the employee’s performance, behavior, or positive test result

Only ask questions related to your employee’s potential need for accommodation, such as whether the employee has been assessed by a medical professional. Make them aware of any workplace support available, such as an employee assistance program. Allow the employee to involve their union or another representative in discussions.

If a disability is not disclosed by the employee, such as substance dependence, then you should clearly outline the consequences of the attendance, performance, or other behavior issues and deal with them as you would with any other employee in the workplace.

You must reconsider your approach, however, if the employee later provides a disability-related explanation. This includes reconsideration of the appropriateness of any disciplinary or other action already taken. Be sure to adhere to any duty to inquire outlined by your state and company policy.

Substance dependence is a complicated issue, you are both concerned for the employee, as well as the safety and well-being of other employees.  So, it is important to address the issue but to do so with compassion.