Category Archives: Human Resources

Is Addiction a Risk in the Workplace?

Book is finally out

I was talking to a human resource manager a few weeks ago about an employee who worked in his company. This employee was driving a company car and there had been numerous complaints from other employees that this man had alcohol on his breath at various times throughout the day. The HR manager said that the employee was almost ready to admit that he had a problem and that they could finally do something.

I asked, “What if the employee killed a child in a motor vehicle accident before he admitted he needed help and you had prior knowledge of a this serious safety situation?” “I see what you mean,” he said and wanted some advice from me.” I suggested that he should take the employee out of that car immediately until he could get a substance abuse professional (SAP) to assess him for addiction and to see what the SAP recommended. The SAP will either recommend treatment or education depending on the nature and seriousness of the problem. The company will then have a written treatment plan and documentation to promote further action.

The manager was concerned with human rights of the employee. I was concerned for the child or others that could be killed or maimed if nothing was done while people were waiting for this man to get help on his own. My primary concern as a Substance Abuse Professional is the safety of the public and the other employees working with an addicted employee. The employee and his or her rights are secondary to the safety of others. The idea is to address the safety concerns first.

What constitutes reasonable cause to ask an employee to undertake a SAP assessment for addiction. What sort of things should a manager look for while observing or hearing about this employee?

· Alcohol on the breath. (That one is pretty obvious and serious)
· Drunk driving or other charges related to alcohol or drugs.
· There are physiological and physical symptoms one can learn and be attentive to.
· Erratic work performance, especially, from someone who was very good at their job. (Look for changes)
· Absenteeism is especially useful clue that the person has a problem with something.
· Rumours are useful. They can help you to establish a pattern if there are enough of them.
· Unreasonable excuses for being away or not completing tasks on time.
· Moodiness and problems with other employees.
(I have a checklist on my site called Checklist for Managers that lists many subtle clues)

How do you know if it is addiction?  Actually, you really do not know if it is an addiction. You would not know that until the person is professionally assessed. You may suspect but unless you have some sort of specialized knowledge and training you would not be able to diagnose this your self. Besides, you do not want or need all of that personal information that an addiction assessment gains, nor would the employee want to give it to you. That personal information needed for the assessment must stay with a third party for confidentiality reasons. That is another reason to us a SAP.

If you think that something is not right, there is a policy violation or that a person has an alcohol or drug problem, you should be documenting the behaviour. You are trying to build a case that something is wrong and it would be reasonable to assume that it may be addiction. To correct policy violations or improve employee behaviour is one of your functions. That is your job. That is solution-focussed intervention. Whether it is addiction or not you will have to deal with it and take steps to correct it. The SAP interview will move you to a solution. Either the person accepts the help or they do not. Are you going to let someone work with the smell of alcohol or break other company rules without taking action? It is not inhumane to ask people to be responsible for their behaviour, especially, when that behaviour has the potential to harm the employee or others.

In my seminars I hear of some really horrific cases that employees and mangers appear to be putting up with that in my opinion could be solved with some action. My on-site seminar includes a slide that says,” Addicted people do not get help because they see the light but because they feel the heat on their ___. “ In the 32 years that I have been in the addiction business, I have found that to be true especially when the workplace is actively trying to help. Everyone that I have ever personally known or heard about who has recovered from addiction, has done so only when the chips were down never when they were on a roll. Something happened in their life to make them see that there is a problem.

The workplace is uniquely able to influence the employee in such a way as to get them to look at himself or herself long enough to see that there is a problem. The choice is then theirs to do something about it.

 

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Everyone Must Do Their Share

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We can’t rely on one person to carry the weight and responsibility of making the workplace safe. It won’t work. If supervisors do not understand the policy and the need for safety they could easily let someone go on who has the smell of alcohol on them for example. They could believe a dumb excuse that it is aftershave or that it was only two beer the night before. They could refuse to alcohol test this person thinking that it will get better down the road. They could neglect to carry out the un-announced alcohol tests that have been recommended by the SAP.

Getting used to enabling is easy. People like you because you don’t challenge them. They like you because you are a people pleaser. They don’t respect you because they think that you are not worthy of respect because you are not doing your job. They think you are easily manipulated. Go on about your day and ignore the warning signs of addiction problems and pray to God this person does not cause an accident before you retire. I have known people like this. They are not serving anyone but themselves.

Unfortunately “it all comes out in the wash” as my father used to say down the road. Someone is going to be accountable for incompetence and poor supervision if there is an accident and then it becomes not pretty. So much easier just to do your job and let the chips fall as they may and you may be helping someone. One thing you will be keeping your workplace safe and following due diligence procedures.

 

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Why Would You Want Your Employee to Have a Substance Abuse Assessment?

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Whay bother with an assessment? Can’t you just ask the employee what they want?

No! You are looking to have some simple questions answered that you probably can’t answer yourself. If these simple questions are not answered then over the long term the employee could get worse, allot worse. That is bad for safety and also for the person. If things go really bad they could be very bad for you. Accident maybe?

You want to know how bad the problem is? That is important because that has to be identified to make a treatment plan.

What is the appropriate treatment? Many bosses think that a 28 day rehab will solve all the employee’s problems but how do you know and is that reasonable?  What if it is not?  A friend of mine who used to work in a mental hospital said “I had a whole wing of rehab grads.”

Is the person following the treatment plan? This is important because if they are that points to someone who will be safe in the workplace, if they are not then that would be a negative for sure.

Are they stable enough to return to work with a plan that they are following? Does alcohol or drug testing need to be invoked for safety and deterrence?

Yes, these questions will be answered with an assessment, safety will be addressed and hopefully an employee will be restored.

 

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Return to Work, or Not….

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If a person attends counselling rehab or self-help, the ultimate goal is the same, to get sober, stay sober and become a useful, safe employee that is not a risk due to substances. Just as addiction has recurring patterns or themes, recovery has patterns and themes that indicate whether the person is going in the right direction or not.

Some employees try to go around the return-to-work procedure and contact the HR department or management to tell them that they are now fine and wish to return to work. There is no proof they have attended any treatment, no re-assessment, no due diligence and no follow-up recommendation. The employee just “feels” they are ready. Unfortunately it is commonplace for doctors or employers to take the person at their word. We allow them to tell us what they need to get better, when obviously they have not been able to fix themselves up to this point. This is especially amplified when people surrounding an addict have bent over backwards to give assistance and have believed that the addict will change just because they said they would.

If an addict’s old behaviour — whining, complaining, displaying anger, bullying — has worked for them in the past, they may try to use that behaviour to expedite their return to work. Those that have been enabled in their addiction wonder why it should be any different now. I have seen situations where the employee starts complaining to anyone who will listen and manages to get supervisors or union representatives worked up to the point where they try to speed up the employee’s return to the workplace.

Ultimately, my goal in a return-to-work interview is to determine whether the employee has changed to such an extent that is it reasonable to believe they will not pose a hazard in the workplace due to substances. Some people are able to demonstrate this very well, others not so much. What the employer or workplace needs is documentation from the SAP so they can satisfy due diligence and proceed on the most reasonable course.

 

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Alcoholics Drink Because they Believe Alcohol is the Solution

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Alcoholism shows itself in different ways and there are many different drinking patterns but there are constants as well. This is from 30 years of reading, working and observation in the field.

  1. Their body is not normal. When they drink it sets up a craving for more. They then drink too much and then suffer symptoms and consequences. So you say the cure is easy and that is true. Don’t drink. Many alcoholics have gone a long time without a drink but the other problem is that………..
  2. Their mind is not normal. Unfortunately, the alcoholic when getting the idea to drink somehow forgets how bad the situation was before. They may have ended up in the detox centre or been caught for drunk driving but they forget this just before they have that first drink. It only takes a minute of thinking like this to pick up a drink and start the ball rolling again. One is too many and a thousand is not enough. They have memory lapses of what the last time they drank did to them and they start them on the cycle again.
  3. The illness is progressive. Sometimes the alcoholic will go for a period and look like they are drinking socially. That is their dream but they can’t keep this up. The alcoholic mind will present to the alcoholic the idea that this time it will be different and that they can now drink like normal people despite anything that may have happened previously in the past. They will keep getting the idea to drink and usually at very inopportune times. The cycle starts again and it gets worse over time.

Alcoholics have a hard time adjusting to life the way that it is. Their belief system tells them that it should be easier that what it is or that they have been given bad breaks. They are not all grown up as they appear. Something is missing. To them life is their problem. Life is at times hard and hurtful and they have found that alcohol is their solution. They can be anxious, depressed, angry, self-absorbed and discontented and the one thing that they have learned in the past very well is that alcohol fixes these things very quickly. So you see alcohol is a solution to their problem.

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

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Wait for the Addict to Hit Bottom? Heck No!

Managers have told me that they have to wait for an addicted employee to hit bottom before anything can be done. While it is true that the addict must reach a bottom or place where they do not want to go again, it is not true that you have to wait. You can act now by making boundaries, drawing your own line in the sand, and by having a procedure or process in place to handle the outcome. Whether the addict changes or not, you must change in order to deal with the problem. You eventually find out through the process whether there is a problem and whether the employee will deal with it or not. The beauty of the process is that what you have to do to make the workplace safe is the thing that the addict may need to hit a bottom or a crisis.

Substance dependent individuals recover in different ways. Some stop immediately and never to return to usage. These are the ones that hit a firm bottom, decide they want to change and act on that desire.

On the other hand, I’ve also witnessed a common pattern: a person hits a bottom, but they forget about what caused it, no action is taken and eventually drug use returns. They will either stop before it gets too bad or be lost again. Occasionally I read about individuals I’ve dealt with through their company policy who have died violently or in some other manner related to their addiction. You might as well know what you are dealing with. It is not pretty.

Do you want to go down the tubes with the addicted employee, or give them a firm chance to get and stay clean? If an employee is having addiction affect their work, deal with it now instead of waiting until they get into serious trouble and possibly hurt others in the workplace.

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There is No Magic to Sober Someone Up but ….

There is No Magic to Sober Someone Up

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The Magic is in the Process

I don’t have any power over anyone and I can’t sober people up and keep them that way. That is way beyond my capabilities. There can be some magic created when an employee has to face a well- run process that causes them to have to look at themselves. There is the magic. That is my experience and that is what I have seen. We don’t wait for people to “come around” and take on that risk and liability. We act with a process that has boundaries and that makes people accountable for their own actions.

Steve Chandler, a business author, has a book where he discusses the choice between people pleasing others or serving them. Serving them gives them reality and employees acting out sometimes are very unhappy to get a dose of that. People pleasing is what the suffering employee wants because they don’t really want to change. They tell you they want to change and promise this is the last time but they don’t. Baby them, tell them it is all right this time, bend the rules and risk an unsafe workplace and they will be happy with you but that is people pleasing and it could bite you in a bad place down the road. Serving can be unpopular but it is the right and safe thing to do. The employee won’t like it but they may thank you for saving their life when they do straighten up.  Do you serve or people please?

 

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Last Chance Agreements

Last Chance Agreements

There is another tool for accountability that can be used in certain situations with an employee if you have decided that their next disciplinary action is termination. This tool makes it very clear that certain behaviour will not be tolerated.

Basically, it is a document that is drawn up by the employer where it has been agreed that no more chances will be given to this employee unless certain continued conditions are met. Legal counsel is desirable in this type of agreement to make sure that the document is solid in the eyes of the law. It is then thoroughly explained to the employee what the conditions are for continued employment like passing drug tests or showing up for work on time for example. The effect of the agreement is that it promotes the idea that there is a limit to what the employer will tolerate. The employee hopefully gets the picture that firm boundaries are in place and the next and final action will be termination.

The employee agrees to behave in an acceptable manner going forward and could be terminated without a grievance or a legal dispute if problems arise. That agreement is then signed as a condition for their return to work. This may be a very useful tool as it promotes responsible action by helping the person realize that there are serious consequences to continued poor choices that affect workplace performance.

Unfortunately, with some individuals, even that consequence does not promote enough motivation for a change in behaviour. They slip and get back on some substance and are caught and that is that. Strangely enough, this is when many addicts actually look at themselves after they have lost their job so this scenario can have a positive outcome. I have seen recovering addicts re-apply for their job after a year of clean time and get it because they have straightened out their life so all is not lost.

What do you do if you think there may be hope when the employee slips? You can keep an employee working after they violated a last chance agreement if you feel they deserve another chance. Maybe a re-assessment is in order to see what their motivation for change really is and if there is a solid action plan. You can then let them go or keep them on the payroll as you will have more information to make your choice after the assessment. There may have been a good long period of acceptable behaviour and you may believe that the slip was more of a bump in the road than a permanent decent. Again, last chance agreements are not for all situations but simply another tool worth knowing about in dealing with substance abuse issues. From what I have seen, accountability promotes behaviour change with substance abuse and addiction and this is one way to help and keep the workplace safe.last chance

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