How to handle employees who have potential drug or alcohol issues

Suspecting an employee of having a drug or alcohol issue is always a difficult problem, which is fraught with tension and high emotions. If you suspect an employee of having a drugs or alcohol related problem, you should try to establish whether this is caused by an addiction or dependency. If this is the case, the employee should be regarded as sick and given the same benefits of other employees who are on sick leave.

Suspicions about drug or alcohol problems usually start due to an employee having an issue such as deteriorating work performance, unreliable attendance, inconsistent time-keeping, unkempt appearance, smelling of alcohol, gaunt face/appearance and behavioural problems. Such observations provide you with a legitimate reason to enter into private discussions with the employee to help identify the cause of the problem.

However, these discussions should always be held by the right level of authority (such as their line manager) and must be handled in an appropriate and sensitive manner. You should never jump to conclusions regarding an employee who appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, because they may have an explanation (such as taking prescribed medication which has similar side effects).

Where an employee has acknowledged they have a problem and is willing to work towards rehabilitation, you should be prepared to support the employee, rather than instigate disciplinary action.

If, following an initial meeting with the employee, you still suspect a drugs or alcohol problem, you should seek expert medical advice. A starting point for this would be to arrange for the employee to be examined by a specialist occupational doctor. The occupational doctor can then advise on how the matter should be dealt with.

If the employee realises they have a problem, and asks for your support, this could be in the form of various actions, such as referral to occupational doctors, paid time off for rehabilitation, counselling etc. However, this is a two-way street, and for the employee to be entitled to the support they must agree in writing at the onset of any rehabilitation programme that this is fully conditional on them completing all the treatment.

As an employer, you should make your rules regarding drugs and alcohol completely clear. Most companies have standard rules such as no consumption of drugs or alcohol are permitted during working hours, either within or outside the workplace. Make it clear that any breach as these rules will be regarded as gross misconduct, and will be handled as such.

Dismissing an employee for consuming drugs or alcohol outside of working hours will only be fair if it can be proved it has a significant tangible impact on their performance, or renders them unsuitable or unsafe to carry out their role. Dismissal of an employee with a drugs or alcohol problem should always be the last resort.