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Dealing With Problem Drinking on the Job

The image of a curmudgeonly desk jockey with a bottle of Scotch stashed in a desk drawer might be a humorous cliche, but drinking on the job is no joke.

In addition to the personal consequences to the drinker, alcoholism can affect the workplace by creating an unsafe environment, straining interpersonal relationships, and reducing productivity due to sloppy work, chronic tardiness, and absenteeism.

Believe it or not, it's a pretty common problem. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 9 percent of full-time workers reported heavy alcohol use. And about 7 percent admitted to drinking during the workday.

What are some of the signs someone may be abusing alcohol? Psychiatrist David Sack, CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, Calif., was interviewed in the Hartford Courant for an article about alcoholism in the workplace; he cited the following warning behaviors:

  • Fighting
  • Hostility
  • Irritability
  • Crying
  • Use of profanity
  • Threatening or erratic behavior
  • Changes in coordination or speech
  • Excessive time in the washroom
  • Disappearance at meeting times
Before you make the obvious joke ("Hey, that sounds like my last boss!") and point out that all of us have exhibited some or all of those behaviors on occasion, bear in mind that you're looking for a repeated pattern of behavior. Additional clues might be excessive tardiness, repeated absences, and accidents on the job.

If you think one of your team members has a drinking problem, don't confront. Interventions, or even a well-meaning chat, can backfire badly. Instead, suggests Businessweek, here's how to help an alcoholic employee.

Document: Once you suspect a problem, start documenting areas in which job performance has fallen short. This may include absences, poor quality of work, interpersonal conflicts, accidents, or errors.

Meet: Set up a meeting, but don't mention the suspected drinking. Instead, focus on the employee's performance by outlining shortcomings, insisting on improvements, and asking if there's anything you can do to help.

Talk Tough: If the employee's performance doesn't improve -- and it probably won't -- it's time for another meeting. Again, don't talk about drinking, but tell the employee that you're still concerned about the situation and want him to see an employee assistance counselor. Finally, warn him if that if his performance doesn't get better, he'll face some serious job consequences.

To increase the odds of the employee following through with the counseling, make the appointment for him yourself. At this point, it's up to the counselor to make diagnosis and treatment recommendations. By avoiding directly addressing the suspected alcohol abuse, you're giving your employee the chance to address his personal demons without embarrassing him or putting him on the defensive at work.

And even if you were wrong about his behavior -- maybe he's going through a tough time that has nothing to do with drinking -- you'll still be getting him the help he needs.

Have you ever dealt with an employee who abused alcohol? Or have you ever worked with (or for) someone with a drinking problem? Share your experiences and advice in the comments section.

(image by mrmatt via Flickr, CC 2.0)

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