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How to Handle an Employee With a Substance Abuse Problem


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "68.9% of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users, ages 18 or older, are employed full or part time." The chances of an employee having a substance abuse problem are higher in certain industries, such as food service, construction and retail. However, substance abuse is an epidemic that can infiltrate virtually any workplace.

When faced with this issue, you may be tempted to simply fire the employee. But this is a delicate situation that should be handled with prudence. Below are some suggestions.

Know the legal implications.

An employee with a substance abuse problem may have certain rights. For example, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, he or she may be entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave in order to seek treatment. Further, depending on where the employee works, the state may restrict your ability to test him or her for suspected drug or alcohol abuse.

Recognize the symptoms of substance abuse.

To be able to spot substance abuse, you must know what to look for. Common warning signs include:

  • Absenteeism/excessive sick leave.
  • Increase in injuries or accidents.
  • Loss of productivity.
  • Frequently disappearing from the work site, without explanation.
  • Missing appointments or deadlines.
  • Problems getting along with co-workers.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene or appearance.
  • Fatigue, slurred speech, unsteady walk or dilated pupils.
  • Poor decision-making.
  • Sleeping on the job.
  • Hangover or withdrawal symptoms.

Although there could be a legitimate reason for these symptoms, such as a medical condition, they should at least be investigated.

Confront the problem according to company policy.

You should have a written policy that addresses substance abuse in your company. When a related problem arises, it should be handled according to the policy.

If allowed by state law, you can have the employee undergo a random drug test. If the test comes back positive, you'll need to consider the employee's overall contribution to the company, how his or her substance abuse has affected the workplace and, if applicable, how you've dealt with other employees with similar issues in the past.

Based on this evaluation, you can decide whether to offer the employee help — such as referring him or her to an employee assistance program or providing time off to seek treatment — or whether to initiate disciplinary action.

If drug testing is not an option, you may need to address the issue directly with the employee by drawing on your observations. Things could get complicated at this point, because addicts often lie about their substance abuse. Ultimately, your decision to take disciplinary action should be based on whether the employee is underperforming or behaving inappropriately at work.

Consult with an expert.

If you do not have an experienced HR team, consult with an employment law attorney or HR consultant if you suspect substance abuse in your workplace.



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Scott Johnson
(617) 298-1000
12 Welch Avenue, #7
Stoughton, MA 02072
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Our firm provides the information in this e-newsletter for general guidance only, and does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services, investment advice, or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional tax, accounting, legal, or other competent advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation. The information is provided "as is," with no assurance or guarantee of completeness, accuracy, or timeliness of the information, and without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties of performance, merchantability, and fitness for a particular purpose.
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