A high rate of absenteeism had the mayor and aldermen of a small town near Kansas City concerned, so they enlisted the services of a consultant to try to get the most out of their 120 municipal employees. The town informed the employees that they could discuss with the consultant any personal problems they might be having, with the assurance that he would treat each case confidentially. Over the next two years, the consultant saw 19 people, some voluntarily, others referred by supervisors. Thirteen of these people were alcoholics -- more than 10% of the town's employees.

"The mayor of the town was astonished," says William S. Dunkin, director of labor-management services for the National Council on Alcoholism. "He hadn't known there were any alcoholics working for the town. Whether an employer thinks so or not, he may have people on his payroll with serious drinking problems that affect their job performance. That can be very, very costly to any company, but especially to a small one."

The usual estimate is that between 6% and 10% of all employees are alcoholics. Dunkin thinks this figure is "probably low." On the other hand, alcoholism, like many other chronic diseases, is treatable. A recovered alcoholic will always be an alcoholic, but by steering clear of alcohol he or she will be able to resume a normal, productive life. The recovery rate for alcoholics who enter treatment is between 50% and 80%, and experts say the chances of recovery are greatest when the spur to treatment comes from the employer.

There are a number of clues that should alert employers to the possibility that an employee is an alcoholic, says Dr. Jermyn F. McCahan, associate director of the American Medical Association's Department of Environmental, Public, and Occupational Health. They include:

* Increase in absenteeism, especially on Fridays, Mondays, and after paydays, and frequent late arrivals or failure to return after lunch.

* Notable slippage in performance, both quantity and quality, but especially the latter.

* Frequent injuries. Alcoholics have three or four times the usual number of accidents, both on and off the job.

* Change in appearance. Heavy drinkers become sloppy in dress and personal cleanliness.

* Change in personality and manner. The normally gregarious and sociable person may become a loner as his drinking problem worsens.

"Every drinker who goes into treatment is pushed in," says Dr. Thomas C. Fleming, a former medical director of an alcoholish treatment center and now editor-in-chief of Postgraduate Medicine. "There is always some type of outside pressure. It might come from a doctor, the family, the law, or the employer. I have found pressure from the employer to be the most effective."

Broaching the subject of alcoholism with an employee isn't easy. "Don't just come out and say, 'I think you've been drinking too much," Dr. Fleming advises. "Make clear you want to find out why he has changed so you can help him." Despite your concern and any evidence you may be able to cite to convince the employee he needs treatment, he may flatly deny that he has a problem. Or he may just clean out his desk and leave. There's always a risk in this kind of confrontation, but ignoring the illness will only make it worse.

If you suspect that several employees have drinking problems, you may send around a memo, stating in a formal but nonthreatening way that the company recognizes that some employees may have problems with alcoholism or other forms of addiction. The statement should also indicate that the company recognizes the problem as a medical one, and that it will help employees with such problems obtain treatment. Putting such a company policy in writing, Dr. Fleming points out, helps ease suspicions that the company is just looking for people it can fire.

When a company issues such a statement, William Dunkin says, recovered alcoholics often identify themselves to management and offer their help. Their role in helping other employees to get the treatment they need is quite valuable. And as employees go through treatment, Dunkin adds, "former drinking buddies and other hidden alcoholics see that the company means what it says, that stepping forward won't jeopardize job security."

Some small companies hire industrial consultants or services to work with alcoholic employees, referring them to places in the community where they can receive treatment. Fees for such services are usually based on how many employees a company has, and not on how many actually use the service. Dunkin estimates such a service would cost a company with 100 employees between $2,500 and $3,000 a year.

"A company saves a lot more than this even if only one employee gets back to his former performance level, especially if that employee is an executive," Dunkin says. "And 85% of the poor job performers identified by the service as alcoholics will not need inpatient treatment. The service catches them early -- that's the beauty of it."

Counseling services operate in most parts of the country. The National Council on Alcoholism can supply companies with a local contact, and with model policy statements and other information about managing alcoholism in the workplace. Its address is 733 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017; telephone (212) 986-4433.