Dealing with alcoholism in the workplace
The January 2008 Legal Report from the Society of Human Resource Management authored by Beth M. Andrus explores in depth the unique challenges that employers face in dealing with an alcohol dependent employee. According to the report, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives guidance and substantial flexibility in addressing problems; however, it does not answer all of the questions that such a situation presents. But a combination of thoughtful ADA analysis, some common sense management practices and appropriate legal advice should be the guide.
Here are some of the highlights:
• Employees who are alcohol-dependent may be held to the same performance and behavior standards as nonalcoholics (42 U.S.C. §12114(c)(4)).The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (one of the most employee-friendly circuits in the nation) approved the following steps as “reasonable accommodation” for an alcohol-dependent employee.
• Informs the employee of available counseling services.The courts are fairly unanimous in finding that, in the absence of misconduct or misuse of alcohol on the job, employers should grant at least one leave of absence for an alcohol-dependent employee to participate in a treatment program.
In alcohol-dependency cases, courts have found that the following accommodations are not reasonable:
• Paid leave for treatmentAccording to the report, “The employer is responsible for reasonably accommodating known disabilities (42 U.S.C. §12112(b)(5)(A)). Generally, if the employee does not disclose the condition, and the employer has no knowledge of it, the issue of accommodation does not arise. The duty to accommodate, however, does arise if the employer is told about the disability by a third party or becomes aware of it through observation. The employee need not say any “magic words” to trigger a duty to accommodate; the employee, however, usually must ask for some type of job assistance. The employer is then responsible for evaluating the various accommodation options. The employer need not provide the “best” accommodation, as long as the offered accommodation enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the position.”
Employers need to send a clear message – do not drink alcohol at work, and limit any such drinking while traveling on business, while operating a company-provided vehicle or attending public events on behalf of the company. The company has the right to take disciplinary steps when employees do not comply, including a change in job responsibilities, the removal of supervisory duties or the removal of company privileges, such as a company-provided vehicle.