Tackling alcohol abuse

Why not read our latest blog post, Long-term absence dismissal not always unfair?

This post reflects TimelessTime consultants’ experience in managing problems associated with alcohol abuse by employees.  This experience covers all grades of staff including directors.

The problem begins with definition and description.  What is it?  It is abuse?  Or alcoholism?  And does it have to be at work?  Can there be issues that spill from home to the workplace?  Don’t people have the right to do what they want in their own time?  The definition is not easy.  The issue is the degradation of an employee’s capability through being under the influence of alcohol at work.  It doesn’t matter when the alcohol was consumed.  What matters is that capability is impaired.

But then what if it isn’t actually impaired much – alcoholics get used to their consumption?  A good working definition is that the manager must believe that an individual is under the influence of alcohol whilst at work and hence their capability is reduced.  That definition is important because it defines the central tenet upon which judgements will be made later: the manager must believe that the employee is under the influence.  Proof is not necessary, just genuine belief.

But how do we know?  How does someone under the influence behave?  They have slurred speech, swaying movement, dishevelled appearance and a smell of alcohol on their breath and around them.  So if they exhibit these symptoms, there are grounds for suspicion.  Look out also for out-of-character activities like drinking fizzy drinks, going absent when travelling and driving home for lunch, then walking back.

The following are some general guidelines for how to proceed:

  • Alcoholics hide their habit so when you tackle the employee, don’t be surprised if they act aggressively and vehemently deny any accusation.
  • Don’t keep giving the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t ignore early signs.  Go formal early and invoke the disciplinary procedure.
  • Use the disciplinary procedure to send a clear message to any guilty employee that the behaviour is not acceptable.
  • But remember that being under the influence at work may be both a health problem and a capability problem.  Tackle both.  Act compassionately but firmly.
  • Gather evidence.  Keep a day-book with events and dates logged.  Log all discussions.  Keep all emails and other communications, even when tacking the problem informally.
  • Don’t discriminate because of suspicions.  Employees (and particularly directors) could claim ‘breach of trust and confidence’ if they are treated in any way unfairly.
  • Seek help.  Discuss with your HR business partner such as TimelessTime.  As principal, MD or CEO you must talk the issues through with someone who understands.
  • Use medical support.  Whilst it may be a disciplinary issue in the workplace, it is normally entwined with deeper health problems such as depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Remember that the effects of management inaction on the rest of the staff are huge.  Management must act, but act with an even hand.

There is a huge amount that managers can do to help avoid alcohol abuse and its effect on the firm.  The first is to have an excellent people management regime (our Blog and web site at www.timelesstime.co.uk has a great deal of material on how to achieve this).  The second is to send clear messages to staff that it is unacceptable to be under the influence of alcohol at work.  Do this using a Drugs and Alcohol Policy that allows for testing and communicate this to the workforce annually.  And do make sure that the employment contract is clear that being under the influence of alcohol at work is a disciplinary offence.

Finally, when using your Disciplinary Procedure, follow it perfectly and never assume guilt before due investigation!  This applies generally but most of all when using it to investigate alcohol abuse.

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