It’s Time for a New Approach to Workplace Substance Abuse

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Substance abuse in the workplace is an age-old challenge in all industries, not to mention mine. According to one report, the construction industry has the second highest rate of heavy alcohol consumption and substance abuse overall. The high-pressure environment and extended hours typical in construction only exacerbate the problem.

Employment attorneys and seasoned HR strategists urge caution when dealing with dependency. Both will readily cite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1988 Drug-Free Workplace Act, and a host of other laws and regulations. But there’s more to workplace addiction than just compliance.

My story takes place at the intersection of the business and human realities of substance abuse. This isn’t the “Twilight Zone,” though sometimes life in HR may feel that way. One of my first trips to the “Zone” occurred a few years back when I was promoted to manager. I inherited an employee who, going forward, I will refer to as “Bob.”

Bob had been with the organization for a decade and was 40 years old, significantly older than me. His attendance left a lot to be desired. He was frequently late, regularly called out, and often smelled as though he bathed in aftershave. On multiple occasions, Bob’s eyes were bloodshot and he looked physically exhausted. As his manager, my first reaction was to get irritated and label him as underperforming. These issues persisted for a few more weeks. I began to question whether Bob may be abusing alcohol.

Following HR best practice, I started documenting Bob’s tardiness. After a while, I scheduled time with him to discuss his attendance issues. He was late to the meeting, walking in with what I considered a “defiant swagger.” When I told him about my concerns, he was very defensive.

I cautioned Bob about his performance and asked whether there were any concerns or issues that he wanted to share with me. He gave me an abrupt “no” and glared at me. I reiterated my attendance expectations before he left the office. The next two days, Bob didn’t report for work nor did he report his intended absences.


On day three, I received a call from a distraught relative of his who shared that Bob had a drinking problem and that he’d be coming in later that morning.

I had a decision to make, and I needed to make it fast. Do I terminate a ten-year veteran employee for well-documented performance issues, or pursue an alternative solution? The decision led to a lot of soul-searching. In a society where we preach that people are the heart of the business, we sometimes treat them as intangible assets who are supposed to separate their lives and personal problems from work.

My decision was to give Bob a formal corrective action notice for his two failures to report for work. I walked into his office that morning and found him packing up his belongings. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied that he was cleaning out his office since he assumed he’d been fired.

I told Bob that while he wasn’t fired, it was time for us to have an honest conversation. For one, I knew he wasn’t happy that someone my age was his boss. I advised Bob that I had the expectation that he would be here consistently and on time. I also added a qualification that changed our relationship.

I told him that I genuinely cared about his wellbeing and that we could learn a lot from one another—but I needed him to be honest with me. I reiterated my question from three days earlier, asking him if there were any concerns or issues that he wanted to share.

That “defiant swagger” melted away. Instead, sitting before me was a man with a big problem that he was not proud of. Bob admitted he was an alcoholic and that it had negatively impacted his life. That day, Bob and I hit the reset button. With my coaching, Bob took a leave of absence to seek assistance and to regroup. He came back not just a better employee, but an entirely new person.

Bob has since moved on to another job, but we still stay in touch. He often tells people the story about how I wrote him up and changed his life for the better. I’m sharing this story because I believe that HR professionals should not forget our shared humanity and the people who support our businesses. Bob was not a bad human nor did he lack the desire to change. Too often in performance management, we’re all too eager to call out an employee’s shortcomings, but we forget to tell them that we genuinely care—which is the real reason why these conversations take place in the first place.

We also forget to allow employees to bring their whole selves to work. We are not machines. When we’re spread too thin, it’s easy to look for quick solutions to big problems. Had I chosen to let Bob go, no one would have disputed the outcome. However, the organization would have lost a decade of institutional knowledge and a great human being. The lesson for me was to take the path that provided the best outcome, not necessarily the most convenient.

Topics: HR, HR for Humans

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