CXO

How to deal with employee substance abuse

About one in 10 workers is affected by substance abuse, and the tech industry isn't without issues in this area. Here are some steps managers can take.

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Image: iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

"If you had told me 20 years ago that I was going struggle with cocaine addiction, I would have laughed," said Charlotte, whose last name isn't used, in an article on the website for Alta Mira, a California-based addiction treatment facility. "My idea of a coke addict was Kelly's mom on 90210, frantically snorting C in the ladies bathroom before the big fashion show, all shoulder pads and leather skirt. I was a mousy girl from Iowa, not exactly primed to take on a $200/day habit."

Charlotte had landed a job in the Silicon Valley that paid her more than both of her parents made together. She got introduced to cocaine by a co-worker. The two of them kept snorting at work, and before long, the habit was consuming most of her income.

This quote from David J. Linden, PhD, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine appears in a post on Alta Mira's website: "When we think of the qualities we seek in visionary leaders, we think of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and charisma, but also the drive to succeed, a hunger for innovation, a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices. But in fact, the psychological profile of a compelling leader [...] is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior. In short, what we seek in leaders is often the same kind of personality type that is found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs."

Hence, it is not entirely surprising that substance abuse crops up in the tech workforce—and it is likely that managers of tech functions and at tech companies see symptoms of these behaviors. But then, what do they do about it?

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that around 14 million people who are employed either full- or part-time abuse alcohol or drugs, and that these employees account for about 10% of the U.S. workforce. While substance abuse has soared in the U.S. workforce, many managers and companies seem to feel that dealing with this issue is the HR's responsibility.

But with so much of the US workforce allegedly "under the influence," it is also in the interest of managers to be more proactive about helping to ensure the welfare of these affected employees, and of the staff members who work with and around them.

Here are six steps that managers can take:

Recognize potential signs of substance abuse

These signs include:

  • Absenteeism, particularly absences without notification;
  • Excessive use of sick days;
  • Frequent disappearances from work;
  • Unreliability in keeping appointments;
  • Work performance that alters between high and low periods of productivity;
  • Increase in accidents on and off the job;
  • Mistakes attributable to inattention, poor judgment or bad decisions;
  • Increases in time and effort for ordinary tasks;
  • Problems with interpersonal relations with co-workers;
  • Confusion, or difficulty concentrating;
  • Progressive deterioration in personal appearance and hygiene;
  • Physical signs such as exhaustion, hyperactivity, dilated pupils, slurred speech or an unsteady walk, etc.

SEE: Drug and alcohol abuse policy (Tech Pro Research)

Document complaints and concerns about the employee's behavior

As a manager, it is likely that you will not be the first one to observe changes in an employee's behavior. Most likely, staff members who work directly with the employee will be the first to know. If the problem is serious enough, they will come to you and expect you to do something about it. Listen carefully, take thorough notes, and let them know you will be looking into the situation.

Investigate

You will want to personally observe the employee in question to see if you can confirm the types of behaviors that others are raising concerns about. If you observe these behaviors, you should document them. Also, this is the time to invite another fellow manager to observe the employee, and to record his or her observations.

Visit with HR

Most IT and tech managers focus on their disciplines and projects. They are not psychologists or human behavior specialists. Consequently, once you uncover a potential employee substance abuse issue, it is time to visit with HR, which specializes in people issues. HR can work with you to refresh on company policy covering substance abuse, as well as on what the potential legal and people issues are. They will likely recommend that you meet directly with the employee. They will also likely have guidelines for the meeting that they will want you to follow as you conduct it. Follow these guidelines to the letter.

Meet with the employee

Meeting with an employee about substance abuse is a highly personal issue—and one that is ideally handled on a private, one-to-one basis. Unfortunately, because of the legalities that can be involved in dealing with substance abuse, employee rights and fair treatment in the workplace, you cannot afford to put yourself at risk as a manager flying solo in a meeting like this. Your HR department will likely be on top of this. They will recommend that an HR manager accompany you to the meeting so there is a second person who can be a witness to what is said by all parties as the meeting is conducted. The goal should to confront the employee directly with what has been observed at work. This is also a time when the employee can fill you in on what has been going on.

Take action

Some companies have policies that enable them to conduct drug testing when an employee is suspected of substance abuse. Employees sign consent agreements for drug testing when they start their employment with the company.

However, the longer term and more important issue for companies and managers is to help employees address their substance abuse issues, whether it is through counseling, leave of absence programs that allow them to get more focused help, and even workforce reintegration programs that enable them to re-establish themselves with the company once their problems are under control. Managers play a critical role in reintegration efforts, because it is their job to ensure that these employees as they re-enter the workforce are not stigmatized by other staff who may have been privy to internal rumor mills.

In 2016, the National Institute on Drug Abuse put the abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs at over $700 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. No one manager can solve this enormous problem in his or her domain, but if more managers can intelligently confront the problem when they first see it surface in staff members, relief can be brought not only to substance abusers but to those around them who are deeply concerned.

Also see:
Can tech help shift the focus of health care from illness to wellness?
Hostile workplace prevention policy (Tech Pro Research)
8 practical ways to make your tech job less stressful
Why so many tech pros want to leave Silicon Valley for their next job

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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