An Alcohol Problem Holds the Bookkeeping Hostage

Dear Rita: Most of the 11 employees in the rural education nonprofit I direct work out of the office. We hardly see each other, so after our quarterly staff meetings, we usually get together for a glass of wine or dinner. After the last meeting, our bookkeeper, "Alice," got obviously drunk. Then a few weeks later, I went into the office unexpectedly and she made a quick excuse to leave. I think - but don't know for sure - that she was drunk. Also, in the past few months Alice has missed a few deadlines. Once, she didn't make the tax deposit! What can I do? -- Sobered Supervisor

Dear Sobered:

When employee problems manifest as poor performance, it's time to deal with the issue head on by wearing your employer hat - not your friend or social worker hat.

I recommend clearly identifying Alice's performance issues, including potential violations of your agency's drug and alcohol free workplace policies, and providing her an opportunity to correct the deficiencies and inappropriate behavior.

By "head on," I am not suggesting that you accuse Alice of having an alcohol problem. Remember that stress, lack of sleep, and illness or health conditions can also affect job performance. Even behavioral signs - like slurred speech or clumsiness - can also be caused by a prescription medication or other health issues.

First and foremost, you should document her unsatisfactory work performance or behavior. This can take place in a formal disciplinary memo or written performance improvement plan: set specific performance and behavior standards that must be met in order for Alice to correct her deficiencies and establish a timeline for review.

Secondly, meet with her to discuss her conduct and to advise her of what needs to be done to correct her performance and behavior. Part of this meeting should be a discussion of the agency's policy of drug and alcohol use in the workplace. If you don't have such a policy, read Adopting a Drug and Alcohol Free Workplace Policy for nonprofits.

With or without a policy prohibiting such conduct, you can mention your observations regarding her conduct at the after-hours gathering where you witnessed excessive alcohol use. Inform her that this is not acceptable behavior at a work-related function and that alcohol use at such functions should be moderate and not lead to impairment.

Additionally, you should clearly state that alcohol use is not tolerated at all during work time.

If Alice again comes to work under the influence, I suggest that you document your objective evidence of alcohol influence (odor of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, unsteady gate), have another manager observe and confirm the suspicion, and then notify her that she is being suspended from work for suspected alcohol use and that you will arrange for her to be driven home either by you or someone of her own choice. By suspending the employee, you buy some time to think clearly before making an adverse employment decision. Once you have coordinated Alice's safe return to her home, you can decide how to proceed.

I recommend consulting a human resource consultant or lawyer as many state and federal laws are triggered for employees with alcohol problems, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, which in some circumstances considers alcoholism an impairment. Many state laws requireA - and recovery advocates call for - certain employers to accommodate employee leave to seek treatment for alcohol dependency. One thing is clear though; no law requires an employer to accommodate alcohol use in the workplace or poor performance related to alcohol use.

Employees are our most valuable resource - but they are also human beings with all types of problems that can and do affect their work performance. Sometimes these personal problems can be addressed in the workplace by a little flexibility and a sympathetic ear.

But workplace alcohol use and impairment directly affects an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to a 2006 study conducted at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, and it's best to have a plan before alcohol problems crop up. It doesn't take a lot of resources to make sure your agency is equipped to deal with what is one of our country's most widespread chronic health problems.

Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems, a research and advocacy group based at the George Washington University Medical Center, recommends that you

  • regularly educate employees about the difference between safe and risky drinking;
  • have in place a health insurance plan that fairly assists people with substance use problems;
  • provide alcohol screening, and
  • establish personnel policies that support treatment and recovery for people with alcohol and drug problems.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (5)

  • As you point out, taking on an alcohol problem is a bit risky. But performance issues are not. If the employee's performance is not up to par, that is the issue that needs to be dealt with. A company I worked for lost an arbitration case for firing an employee with alcohol problems when he didn't attend AA meetings he had agreed to. The arbiter's opinion was that the company couldn't regulate off-hours of the employee. Years later I won a similar case because we focused on the employee's behavior at work. In this case, he had an attendance problem (because of alcohol, we knew) and we simply focused on the attedance. He couldn't correct the problem, so we eventually fired him and the union didn't pursue it. In another case, an employee had uncontrolled diabetes which caused a variety of performance problems. Again, we focused on performance and in this case the employee corrected himself, began controlling his diabetes and became an excellent employee.
    Kathleen Koski

    Nov 19, 2008
  • Hey check out this book by Arthur Jackson, Raise the Bottom. It really uncovers what can happen with an alcoholic in the workplace--it makes the issue easier to address as well. Arthur is a recovered alcoholic and has worked in business his whole life, so he has an interesting perspective on the whole thing and has a lot to say about it.
    http://raisethebottom.blogspot.com/
    http://raisethebottom.com

    Jan 21, 2009
  • You should approach her directly, see what the real problem is and then do something about it. Make sure she really has an alcohol problem before rushing into conclusions only after that talk to her. You say you are friends too, that makes things complicated and I think you should offer her a chance to recover in an alcohol treatment center. See what she has to say and then you'll know what to do.

    Feb 09, 2009
  • The most simple thing you can do is actually speaking to your employee and asking in a semi-direct mode what is going on: if there is an alcohol or drug problem, a drug rehabilitation center is the best thing you can do for her... It will save her career, maybe, and her social life as well and maybe her family life... Well, now it is up to you and be gentle:))) Such problems can very hard to talk about...

    Apr 20, 2009
  • It would be better to address her performance at work first. Because an alcoholic uses denial and wouldn't admit that he is an alcoholic. You can talk to her, since her role in your company is important: she's your bookkeeper. Ask her if she is stressed from work or what makes her forget her deadlines, etc. You can also give her an ultimatum on her performance.

    Jun 22, 2009

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