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How to Speak to an Employee Suspected of Alcohol Abuse

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The workplace costs of alcohol abuse are estimated to range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. It's never easy to confront an employee suspected of alcohol abuse. Still, alcohol abuse is a serious problem that can not only harm the employee's health and well-being, it can potentially endanger other employees and the public, and have a negative impact on the atmosphere of the workplace.

Document Your Observations

As a supervisor or manager, it's not your role to diagnose or treat employees who have alcohol and substance abuse problems. Your role is to identify and address job performance issues, according to a report by the human resources department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Document your observations, including the employee's behavior, attendance, motivation and interactions with coworkers and management. Job performance problems related to alcohol abuse might include increased workplace accidents, tardiness, decreased productivity or poor relations with others. Develop a clear plan to address your observations with the employee. If the employee is intoxicated, he should be removed from the workplace and immediately sent home by taxi or picked up by a family member.

Confront the Employee

After you've compiled documentation, set aside a quiet, private time to meet with the employee to discuss your concerns and observations. Treat the employee with respect and consideration. Try to be as nonjudgmental as possible. It can be difficult to start the conversation, but focusing on the facts and not emotions is advisable. You might say something like, "I'm concerned about your job performance in the past two weeks. You've always been a motivated and hard worker, but your performance seems to have recently declined." Focus on the specific numbers and facts you've documented to support your statement. You should not mention your suspicion of alcohol abuse because you are not in a position to evaluate whether this suspicion is true, advises clinical social worker Thomas N. Ruggieri, a licensed clinical social worker with the University of Maryland Faculty Staff Assistance program. Just stick to your observations about the decline in job performance.

Stay Focused

Employees with alcohol and substance abuse problems might become defensive or evasive when confronted with the facts. Despite the inherent difficulties of the situation, it's crucial to stay focused on job performance and other concrete observations. An employee might cry, become angry or deny your observations, but it's not your job to provide counseling. Stay calm, objective and professional. When you feel the conversation start to stray, bring it back to your observations on work performance.

Follow Up

Once you've confronted the employee, you should provide a referral to your company's employee assistance program (EAP) or an outside treatment provider, such as a community treatment center or hospital, if your company does not have an EAP. An EAP can make return-to-duty recommendations, if applicable, provide an evaluation, refer the employee for treatment, and follow up to see whether the employee has followed EAP recommendations. Unless an employee is mandated to attend treatment, his contact with the EAP is confidential. If you want to be informed about the employee's progress with the EAP, he must sign a release form granting permission for the EAP counselor to speak with you.


Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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