What to Do When the Boss Is a Drunk

Last Updated Jun 22, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,

My boss has a problem with beverage abuse. What can I do to make the boss's absences easier for my co-workers?


Dear Enabler,

Is it Diet Coke? I'm assuming it's something a little bit stronger, and not coffee, either, although coffee abuse has screwed up more than one senior officer I know. I once had a boss who drank about six brimming mugs of strong black coffee every morning before 9 ... and then spent about an hour in the men's room after that. Took a huge chunk out of his day.

Stress takes its toll on the small and the mighty alike. In many business people, particularly those at the end of a career cycle, it takes the form of some kind of addiction. Could be sex. Could be drugs. In many cases, it's work. And in your boss, it seems to be booze. In a real sense, it would be sad enough even if it didn't compromise the careers of those who are swept away in the carnage. As it is, you have asked the right question, only not quite broadly enough. The real question is twofold:

  • How do I keep my department running smoothly when my boss is a little too well-oiled on a regular basis?
  • How do I make his life more comfortable as he decomposes, while at the same time not getting sucked under when he finally circles the drain?
These are obviously massive questions that require study, thought, and complex answers. Fortunately for you, they addressed in the final chapter of my book, Crazy Bosses, which deals at some length with this delicate balance of enabling and self-preservation. I'll give you a short gloss, though:
  • If something is not being done, do it yourself. If it's too much for you, get together with other people in the department and divvy up the duties.
  • Unless your drunken boss is an actual danger to himself or others, let him ride for as long as you can. Do NOT blow the whistle on the poor bastard unless and until it is absolutely a matter of public well-being and safety for you to do so.
  • Keep the boss informed of your activities as much as possible, and as much as he or she is interested. You are still working for the sot.
  • Keep other power brokers in the building lightly informed of your growing stature and status -- but nothing heavy handed. They know it anyway. After all, you're the one who's going to most of the meetings now. And they've seen your boss when he's saturated more than once, too, I'll bet.
  • Do not allow your emotions to rule your behavior. You're going to lose this guy. He's doomed. Feel appropriate pity and sorrow. But keep a keen eye out for the rocks that lie ahead -- and don't allow yourself to be pulled into them.
In the end, you will have to pick the moment to leave your beverage-heavy boss to his own fate. It will come. So will yours one day. Keep that in mind before you make too many value judgments.