Brainfood: Crash course in ... Handling drink and drugs abuse

A client says one of your employees always seems to be drunk on the job.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

A client says one of your employees always seems to be drunk on the job. The sales department is permanently half-skinned, and a cleaner has found a line of white powder in the directors' loos. Are alcohol and substance abuse damaging your business?

Be alert for signs. Lateness, frequent absence and poor performance often indicate drink or drug problems. 'Look out for anyone who is late for work every day or whose productivity has fallen,' says Geethika Jayatilaka, director of policy and public affairs at Alcohol Concern. 'Often, when you talk to them about it, the truth comes out.'

Identify critical functions. Many firms have a stricter policy for employees in roles where safety is an issue - eg, those operating machinery or responsible for transporting others. There is good reason: you could be prosecuted if you haven't shown due diligence to stop staff consuming drink or drugs before or during work. An office-based enterprise may take a more relaxed view, but don't apply different rules at different levels.

Put it on paper. Your alcohol and drugs policy should reflect the firm's culture and level of risk. 'Having one provides clear boundaries for everyone on what is and isn't acceptable,' says Jayatilaka.

Testing alone is not the answer. 'Testing for drugs or alcohol is not a substitute for good-quality management,' says Yolande Burgin, director of an independent enquiry into the subject. 'Consider what damage it might do to your organisation, and remember there is no one-size-fits-all approach.' Adds Karen Seward of lawyers Allen & Overy: 'You can test people only with their consent.'

Don't be moralistic. 'Employees have a right to their private life, and in some contexts alcohol may represent a much greater risk than a drug that is illegal,' says Burgin. 'Are employers going to look into everything else staff do that could be illegal?'

Offer help before the sack. It often makes better business sense to provide counselling and other support than to dismiss someone. After all, finding and training a replacement may be more costly.

Don't encourage drinking. It's no use lecturing your troops about drinking at work if you provide alcohol on tap in the cafeteria, or herd everyone to the pub at the first opportunity. 'Also, remember that we live in an increasingly diverse society, where many people don't drink,' says Jayatilaka.

Look for an underlying cause. It could be the stressful nature of your firm that is turning all these people to drink and drugs. How about providing some massage?

Do say: 'Use of alcohol and drugs that affect your work performance is not acceptable, but support will be given to staff to overcome problems of dependency.'

Don't say: 'Hey, that's Monday over. Pints all round at the Prince of Wales!'

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