Former Disney star and pop singer Demi Lovato is recovering, having been hospitalized for a reported drug overdose. Lovato had struggled with addiction for years but received treatment had recently celebrated six years of sobriety. Though some are treating her recent overdose as a surprise, it shouldn't have been. And if it happens to one of your employees, it shouldn't come as a surprise to you either.

If you've never had a substance abuse problem yourself, it's easy to forget that for many other people, drug and/or alcohol abuse can be a frequent or even daily occurrence. But if you have employees, there's a high likelihood there are substance abusers among them. According to federal government statistics, 69 percent of illicit drug users in the United States have jobs. And they don't have to have a "real" problem to do damage--according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, most alcohol-related performance problems occur with people who occasionally drink too much, not those with a daily habit. 

If you have reason to suspect that substance abuse is affecting an employee's performance and/or relations with co-workers, here's what to do:

1. Don't ignore the signs.

Demi Lovato may have had six years of sobriety, but she let the world know in no uncertain terms that she was in trouble when she released the single "Sober" onto YouTube last month. "Wake me when the shakes are gone and the cold sweats disappear," she sang. "I'm so sorry I'm not sober anymore." And if that weren't enough of a signal that things were going wrong, Lovato was caught on video a few days ago actually forgetting the words to the song in the middle of performing it. Given all this, it's highly likely that Lovato's family and friends knew that she was in trouble. But it's next to impossible to force substance abusers to get help if they aren't ready. And Lovato had a history of rejecting help and/or using in secret before she got sober.

Your employees, of course, are not likely to signal their drug or alcohol problems by singing about them, so you should be attuned to the signs of a substance abuse problem. Obviously if an employee has dilated pupils, slurred speech, or an unsteady walk, or if he or she smells of alcohol, you have every reason to suspect that person is having a problem. But you should also be on the alert for more frequent absences, especially with suspicious excuses, deteriorating relationships with co-workers, inattentiveness, taking longer to complete tasks or alternating between completing tasks quickly or slowly, evading responsibility for errors, and decreased attention to grooming or hygiene.

2. Make sure you know the law.

If you believe an employee may be suffering from a drug or alcohol problem that is affecting his or her work, don't wait for it go away. Plan to sit down in private with the employee to address the problem. Before your meeting, make sure to review your legal rights and obligations, since both current and recovering substance abusers have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and may be covered by state laws as well.

3. Don't assume that you know what's truly going on--or that your employee will tell you.

Years ago, I had a co-worker who was exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior. It turns out the culprit was a health issue, not a substance abuse issue. Unless you've actually observed an employee using a mind-altering substance, followed by erratic behavior, you have no way of truly knowing what's causing the problem. 

And don't expect your employee to tell you. Denial is a very common response when a substance abuser is confronted with questions about sobriety. The truth is, although you may be curious, or you may care as a friend, you don't actually need to know what substance (if any) is affecting your employee's performance. You need the specific performance issue to be resolved. So focus on specific and documented performance issues during your conversation. Don't get into a verbal tug-of-war over whether your employee was abusing alcohol or drugs or just had a bad reaction to cold medicine.

4. Steer the employee toward professional help.

Whatever you do, don't try to counsel the employee yourself, or organize an in-office intervention. Your employee needs help from a trained professional, not a boss or friend, however well-meaning. If your company has an employee assistance program, you should point the employee in that direction. If not, come to the meeting prepared with brochures and phone numbers for local organizations that can provide help, along with information about services your company's insurance will cover, if any.

5. Don't cover for the employee.

If an employee is failing to complete assigned work due to a suspected substance abuse problem, you may be tempted to lend a helping hand by finishing up some tasks yourself or re-assigning work to someone else. While you need to make sure that the work gets done, make sure to document any instances where you or anyone else has to complete tasks that were the employee's responsibility. Don't try to save the employee from embarrassment by making excuses when he or she misses a meeting or deadline. 

Your employee's sub-standard performance should have consequences, so a record of these incidents will be a valuable tool to either compel the employee to face up to the problem, or provide cause for discipline or termination if that becomes necessary. But more to the point, if you care about your employee, know that you aren't helping him or her by providing cover--you're enabling the substance abuse to continue. In the long run, that will only make things worse, for yourself, your employee's co-workers, and your company. 

Published on: Jul 26, 2018
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