Here’s what you need to know about addressing drug addiction in the workplace

Question:

Although I’m a human resources director, I’m not a company owner or principal and am lower in status than the producers who “make us money.” For that reason, I haven’t done anything about the rumors circulating concerning one of our top producers.

According to staff, he snaps at them, leaves the office for unexplained meetings and is always hyper when he returns. He’s recently lost a lot of weight.

I had a talk with him this morning about how he treats the staff. While he’s always been aggressive, he lashed out at me and told me it was none of my business, but that he had a few problems at home. I offered that we could send him to our Employee Assistance Program and he told me he had everything under control. I couldn’t help but notice that the muscles around his right eye kept twitching, which I thought might be a mark of extreme stress.

What else can I do?

Answer:

Although you don’t make money for your employer, you can save them from problems that can lose them money. Your top producer appears to be caught in a situation that’s disintegrating, whether due to family issues, physical problems or substance abuse.

Your producer may have lashed out at you because the problem is truly none of your business, because he’s under extreme stress in his personal and work life. Or it could be because he’s hiding drug addiction. The eye twitch, sudden weight loss and hyper, aggressive behavior are all potential signs of drug addiction.

Right now, you have anecdotal evidence, but little performance-based information, which is what you need to successfully handle a high-voltage problem. If it’s drug addiction, it’s a stunningly common and dangerous problem. Seventy percent of the approximately 15 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. Addicts are five times more likely to cause accidents in the workplace that injure themselves or others, and addiction is a downward spiral.

Although addicts can be experts at covering their tracks, if you investigate the situation you may find inconsistent job performance; frequent unexplained absences; disorientation, poor judgment, confusion or the inability to perform regular tasks; and unusual behaviors such as hyperactive/manic activity or a sudden lack of concern over personal hygiene. When you confront an addict, you can expect denial.

Since he’s a high producer, you’ll need senior management to back you when you take action. As you suspect, you may experience backlash if you suggest a high-revenue generating employee has a problem without the evidence you need to back up your concerns. Your managers may not want to jeopardize their relationship with this producer or to take the hit that handling this situation may have on client relations.

Here’s what you and they need to know.

Keep your focus on job performance, which includes how this producer treats support staff and his other duties. While the Americans with Disabilities Act may cover those who use (and even overuse) legally prescribed drugs, as distinguished from illicit drug use, you can require the same performance and conduct standards for those who use prescription drugs that you require of any other employee. Avoid questions such as, “Do you think you might be overusing a legally prescribed drug?” as these words flag that you perceive a disability and false accusations of disability violate the ADA.

The ADA requires that you provide a reasonable accommodation to a “covered” employee who can otherwise handle his job, such as a modified work schedule or leave of absence so your producer can get treatment. But if your producer continues to deny a problem, you may not be required to provide accommodation; after all, how can a company accommodate a disability that doesn’t exist?

If you have a policy allowing “reasonable suspicion testing,” and your producer knows he may be subject to reasonable suspicion drug testing, and you directly observe verifiable signs of substance abuse, you require him to submit to testing.

Finally, if you don’t handle this situation, but have known or “should have known” about it, and something happens, your firm could have liability. For example, imagine what might happen if your producer causes a fatal car accident while driving on company business and an investigation discovers he was high at the time. In other words, as tough as it might be to tackle this situation, the consequences for not dealing with it could be even worse.

©Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc.Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.

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