Career at risk from an alcoholic boss? Here’s what you should do

Question: 

I expect to be fired tomorrow.

I work for a small company owned by a man and wife, both of whom are semi-retired. The husband returns from lunch smelling of alcohol and enjoys “checking” on the work my co-worker and I have accomplished. When he’s seriously drunk, I find this annoying. I admit I have an attitude about this and if I snap at him, I later apologize.

The husband also represents our company at trade shows where he turns into a surly, mean drunk and makes inappropriate comments to customers. I haven’t quit because I like my job, co-worker and the wife, am well-compensated and have virtually no commute time.

Yesterday the husband was obviously drunk in the afternoon. He asked me a series of questions about a project and I told him, “I’ve handled it.” He then called my co-worker upstairs and said he had “just about had it” with my attitude problem and asked my co-worker to tell me so. He also told my co-worker, a man, that I apparently had a problem with all men. All I had said was, “I’ve handled it.”

An hour later the husband emailed me saying “If you’re unhappy, you need to find another job.” Thirty minutes after that, he emailed me that I “had overnight to decide if I wanted to stay here.”

The husband had a similar blowout with my predecessor and then fired her, which is how I ended up with my job. He’s also the type that gets angrier over time, and I’m thinking he’ll stew overnight and there won’t be anything I can say in the morning.

If I’m fired for a “bad attitude,” how do I address this in a job interview? I don’t want to give prospective employers a rundown on my boss’s alcoholism. How do others handle alcoholic bosses?

Answer: 

If you’re fired tomorrow, ask your co-worker and the wife for positive letters of reference. These letters, along with how you interview, vouch for your work ethic, professionalism and attitude.

When a prospective employer asks you who supervised you, give the wife’s name and suggest that the best time for a call is during the lunch hour or at another time when you expect the husband to be out of the office or not able to answer the phone. If you have a performance review, include it with your resume. Employers trust performance reviews more than reference letters. This heads off the negative reference you fear.

Don’t discuss the husband’s alcoholism with a prospective employer. If you do, you indicate your willingness to divulge personal information about a former employer, which reflects badly on you. If the worst happens, and a prospective employer hears negative statements from the husband, your prospective employer will balance that with your references and the fact that you didn’t seize the opportunity to badmouth the husband.

If you’re not fired tomorrow, consider finding a new job anyway. Although the husband appears to be 90 percent of the problem, you own 10 percent. While you maintain all you said was, “I’ve handled it” and that you apologize whenever you snap, you likely have shown the husband attitude in your voice tone and demeanor. If so, it’s understandable, but doesn’t give you or him a respectful foundation for an effective employer/employee relationship.

If you stay, realize you can’t control your boss by how you respond to him, as alcohol abuse feeds on denial. Alcoholics rarely see the degree to which their drinking impacts their behavior and your boss apparently projects blame onto you for your reaction, while ignoring how he triggers you.

Also, alcoholics sometimes have times during the day when it’s best not to engage with them. This doesn’t mean shoo them away, it means realize they’ve given up behavior control to a liquid drug. For the husband, this appears to be the early afternoon and that’s when you need to be on your best behavior — if you stay.

© 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 www.bullywhisperer.com.

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