How To Confront And Help An Alcoholic Employee

Unless you work for a very small company, at least one of your colleagues probably has a drinking problem. And if you're a manager, the odds are that you haven't done anything about it.

Most managers dread the idea of confronting an alcohol abuser. They don't know what to say. In some fields, such as journalism and sales, drinking may seem such an integral part of the job that it seems unfair to single anyone out. And you can almost count on getting the runaround. "No one but alcoholics will talk so much about how little they drink," says Eugene McWilliams, chairman of the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence.

DELICATE ART. Still, McWilliams and other experts say intervention is often the only way to get an alcoholic into treatment. Fortunately, such tactics are especially effective at work. "The reality that your job is on the line is usually quite an eye-opener," says Carol Cepress, who runs a program that helps business deal with alcoholics at the Hazelden treatment center in Center City, Minn.

But intervention doesn't work if it's not done right. Once you suspect a problem, begin documenting instances in which job performance has fallen short. Absenteeism is one problem characteristic of the alcoholic employee. The drinker may habitually leave the office early or arrive late and take more days off than others. Accidents, errors, and an overall decline in quantity or quality of work are increasingly evident. An alcoholic's mood swings may also lead to a rise in conflicts with other employees.

Once you have marshaled the facts, set up a meeting. But don't get right to the point. That's the last thing the experts recommend. Instead, they advise managers not even to mention drinking, let alone diagnose alcoholism.

Instead, says Susan Swan-Grainger, executive director of Employee Assistance of Central Virginia, which provides EAP services for some 20,000 employees from different companies, "keep the discussion focused on performance." Outline the shortcomings, insist on improvement, and then ask if there is anything you can do to help.

The alcoholic employee will probably promise to improve. But almost inevitably, performance problems will recur, often within just a few weeks. Now, it's time for a tougher session. At this meeting, Swan-Grainger says, still avoid the issue of drinking, and say: "I don't know what's wrong with you, but I want you to see an employee assistance counselor." To give the worker an extra push, Swan-Grainger advises setting up the appointment yourself.

This approach leaves the diagnosis and treatment recommendations to trained counselors. But you can increase the odds of success by "telling them that if performance doesn't improve, they'll be disciplined," says Dr. Gary M. Kohn, the corporate medical director at United Air Lines Inc.

Consider how American Telephone & Telegraph Co. handled Steven, 36, a middle manager in its international operations who was addicted to both alcohol and cocaine. Steven, who asked that his last name not be used, says he was coming into work late every day, often on little or no sleep. Early last year, while exploring a possible transfer within AT&T, he ran up a four-figure balance for personal expenses on his corporate credit card. With this, AT&T nixed the transfer, and his boss urged Steven to see a counselor--without accusing him of anything specific. Steven entered treatment in May and has been sober since. His performance has improved, and he recently got another transfer he wanted.

Many managers put off confronting employees like Steven, often in the belief they're being kind. To the contrary, confrontation may be the kindest course. Steven says that intervention "saved my life." And AT&T seems to have reclaimed a young worker whose gratitude and restored ability could result in years of productive service.

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