Sunil had moved to the city from a small town. A quick learner, he was soon
performing very well and was recognised as having great potential. But along
with his work he also learned other things from city life - including a lot of
partying,where drinking was the norm. Gradually Sunil's team leader began to
see a change in him. His performance began to go down; there were complaints
about him from clients as well as co-workers. He began to report late to work
and take more time off, claiming to be sick. Often he seemed sleepy, red
eyed and unkempt - something that was very different from his normal behaviour.
Then came the time when Sunil actually turned up at work smelling of liquor,
with blurred speech and unsteady gait - clearly drunk, and not caring who knew it.
Can Sunil's supervisor do anything about this? Abuse of drugs or alcohol is a personal issue - can/should a manager 'interfere'? Whose responsibility is it?
It is definitely the employee's own responsibility to be sensible in the use of alcohol or drugs. However, a supervisor cannot ignore the problem either, because a problem with drugs or alcohol has many implications for the workplace.
Impact On The Workplace
Excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs not only harms the individual concerned, but also affects his work. Performance goes down and often absenteeism and late-coming increases. There are chances of inappropriate behaviour that could affect the rest of the team, and various disciplinary issues may arise. In the case of an employee who interacts with clients, the company's reputation may also suffer. There is also loss of potential when an otherwise bright, competent person is not achieving and may even have to leave the organization.
With all these negative effects, a company cannot afford to ignore the problem.
What Is The Manager's Role?
A supervisor or manager is in a unique position to help an employee for a variety of reasons:
The supervisor is the first to notice when performance deteriorates. Since alcohol and other drugs affect judgement, coordination, memory, clarity of thinking and decision-making, this will clearly show up in errors or reduced output and/or quality of work. The observant manager will also be able to notice changes in appearance and behaviour. Team members or colleagues from other teams may also bring the problem to the attention of the manager.
A good supervisor generally commands a certain amount of respect, and therefore has the power to influence an employee. So a person who brushes off or ignores advice and suggestions from friends is still likely to be open to his manager.
The supervisor has the right to question performance - and in the process can bring up the issue of alcohol abuse, whereas well-meaning friends or co-workers may just be brushed aside. In fact, if work is directly affected, then a manager can actually insist on the employee seeking help for the problem and this motivation may be exactly what is required.
But What's In It For The Manager?
As a manager your primary responsibility is to ensure productivity of your team/s. You may consider it an unnecessary burden to have to worry about a problem that the employee ought to take care of himself. However, since the problem does have consequences for the team and the organization it is in the manager's best interest to tackle it, failing which his team's productivity and morale will go down.
The easiest way out may be to terminate the employee's services. However there are many occasions when a competent, capable employee has a problem with drugs or alcohol. You may not want to lose this person's contribution, yet see that his behaviour is having a negative effect on the work and rest of the team.
Having to handle such persons and take care of the consequences of their behaviour can be a major source of stress for you, and if you are able to get them to a source of help, that would be a huge load off your back.
Besides, from a purely 'human' perspective, it is hard to stand by and watch a fellow human being throw his or her life away. Because even if the person leaves the organization, and the company's problem ceases, chances are that this person will continue with the behaviour and probably deteriorate further if he or she does not receive help. We cannot, of course, guarantee that the person will change, but can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we've provided an opportunity to do so.
Signs Of Alcohol Or Drug Abuse
How can you spot a person who has a problem with drugs or alcohol? The symptoms of excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs are fairly similar. They include:
Personal Appearance: The person may be inappropriately dressed at work, hygiene and grooming may deteriorate, may appear sleepy, or exhibit physical signs like slurred speech, unsteady movements or blood-shot eyes.
Irregularity: Increased absenteeism, taking extended weekends (Monday/Friday absences), frequent late-coming, extended lunch breaks, disappearing inexplicably at odd times during the day, taking unauthorised leave.
Productivity: Drop in performance, misses deadlines, doesn't complete tasks, low output of work, takes many breaks; wastes time; needs constant reminders to complete work; easily upset; work needs to be redone
Judgment: Poor decision making, will not reverse decisions even when wrong, not able to understand the whole picture, takes inappropriate actions
Working With People: Poor listening skills; tends to blame others; is hostile, argues, easily and frequently angered or hurt by others; co-workers, clients and the public may complain about the person, may engage in behaviour that requires disciplinary procedures.
One symptom is not enough reason to worry, but if a couple of signs can be put together there could be cause for concern. Do remember that no manager should assume that poor job performance is a sign of alcoholism or drug abuse. Many other situations like stress, lack of sleep, health conditions or prescription medication could affect performance or even cause similar physical symptoms. So keep an open mind even as you talk to the person
What Can a Manager Do?
A supervisor reading this may have a lot of questions:
"This is all very well, but how do I go about broaching such a tricky subject?"
"How can I be sure that the person really has a problem with alcohol or drugs?"
"Can't I just stay quiet? I don't want to ruin someone's life"
"I don't know a thing about alcoholism - what can I do to help?"
Here are some steps that can make this sensitive task somewhat easier:
Observation:Take the time and effort to observe team members working under you, watching out for changes in performance, behaviour and appearance as mentioned above.
Documentation: Make a note of your observations over a period of time. This will help you be clear as to whether there is a pattern to the behaviour or just a single incident, and it will also ensure objectivity.
Planning: Plan your meeting in advance, thinking about what you will say, and anticipating possible responses the team member could make. Remember that your purpose is to address his / her performance, not to accuse or even mention your suspicions at this stage.
Talk to the team member: Make sure you talk in a private place where you cannot be overheard by others. Share your observations with him/her, giving an opportunity for the employee to give an explanation for the performance in question. Do this in a way that does not make him feel defensive. You may hear an explanation that puts your mind at rest, On the other hand you may discover that there really is a problem with drugs or alcohol.
Discuss your organization's policies: If you have a specific alcohol and drug policy in your company, it is important that you discuss it at this point. The person does need to know that there will be consequences for his behaviour, and this may provide the motivation to get help.
Refer the employee for help: Helping someone manage an addiction requires professional expertise; it is not something that you as a manager can do. But a manager has a critical role in encouraging employees to use appropriate resources of help. Remind them that the company's Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is available, and that they can get free and confidential help. Keep the telephone numbers and website address handy so that you can give it to the person. If feasible, you could even call and set up an appointment for the team member in his/her presence.
Follow up: Continue to monitor the employee. Ask if he /she has kept the appointment and has begun to undergo treatment if required. (The EAP counsellor may in turn refer the employee to a rehabilitation center if required and this may in some cases involve residential treatment.) Encourage the person to continue the treatment. Once the employee has returned to work he/she should be expected to fulfill the normal requirements of the job with no preferential or special treatment. Give the person feedback about his/her behaviour on a regular basis.
Work with team members:It is important that you maintain confidentiality about an employee's problems, so do not discuss details unnecessarily with the rest of the team. However it is very likely that the other members of the team may be already aware of the problem. In this case you could help the others to understand the importance of getting the person to a source of help. They could also be of practical help by intervening when they witness a co-worker drinking excessively or abusing drugs. They could, for example, ensure that the person does not drive in this state, which could prevent a serious accident. The team should be exposed to information about the problems associated with alcohol and drug abuse, and also made aware about the company's policies regarding this.
Support for family members: Family members of the employee may need support to cope with problem behaviour as well as to help them provide the right environment to facilitate change. Encourage them to take counselling help as well. Rehabilitation programmes often include sessions for family members and they should be encouraged to attend these.
The biggest mistake a manager can make is to overlook an employee's problem. The right amount of help given at the right time can make all the difference, both for the individual and for the company.