How to Deal with Employees who may have Alcohol or Drug Problems

Having to deal with an employee who is suspected of having an alcohol or drug problem is probably one of the most difficult issues the HR department has to deal with – not only does it raise a lot of emotions, it also poses a serious procedural problem on how to handle the situation.

Often such problems can be detected early if you keep an eye out; recurrent absences, poor work performance, unkempt appearance, irregular behaviour or other symptoms are often good indications. It should be noted, however, that these symptoms don’t necessarily point at dependence or addiction problems – there may be other causes. Here’s how to deal with employees who may have alcohol or drug problems.

Don’t jump to conclusions

When a person shows signs of being under the influence of a certain substance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that illegal drugs or alcohol abuse is the problem. It could be that certain prescribed medications are showing negative side effects, or that other medical problems may be the issue. Unless there is a clear indication of substance abuse (such as the strong smell of alcohol on a person’s breath, or a witness who saw drug abuse) you cannot deduce that alcohol or illicit drugs may be a problem.

Seek medical advice

If the problem is recurrent, it should first be professionally established by a medical professional, so a nurse or, preferably a GP, should establish that drugs or alcohol is indeed a problem. The physician would then also be able to advise on which action is most appropriate in the situation.

Your options

There are many options available for the company – if the person acknowledges the problem and seeks help in dealing with it, the company could be lenient and extend a helping hand. This will, of course, largely depend on the policies the company has.

Making the rules clear

As an employer, the rules regarding drug abuse or consumption (of being under the influence of) alcohol during working hours should be made clear from the very start.

Dismissal should be the last resort

Unless it is a fairly recurring problem, giving warnings and counseling may be more appropriate than outright dismissal. If you have scheduled interviews with the employee, have it recorded and then transcribed by the right transcription services as reference.

It should be clear that most medical practitioners see addiction or dependence on drugs or alcohol as a medical problem, and therefore it should be treated as such. It’s understandable that the employer wants to distance themselves from this problem, but there are too many legal and internal issues to deal with – the problem is often a complicated one. Handle it with care, and ensure you have both the best interests of the employee and the employer (as well as all other staff) in mind.

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