If you have an employee who is struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, there are steps you can take to help them. Many employees will be willing to at least try rehab if the alternative is losing their job. Oftentimes, your intervention can be what prompts them to get help.

Employees and Drug Abuse

Employees who struggle with drug abuse and addiction can present a challenge to employers.

On the one hand, an employer often feels an obligation to help their employee as best they can with what is quite a serious issue. On the other hand, drug abuse can have a significant negative impact on that employee’s performance and the company as a whole. Substance abuse on the job can put everyone’s safety at risk.

The exact nature of an employer’s obligation to help their employee versus maintain their company’s effectiveness presents a complicated question. It is further complicated by legal obligations and limitations, which exist to prevent unfair discrimination.

If you believe your employee has a problem with drug addiction, you need to assess your options as well as research your legal obligations. Consult your company’s human resources department regarding applicable laws and procedures first.

Company Policy and the ADA

Every company should have a firmly established set of policies outlining behavior that is and is not acceptable in the workplace. Banning all drug use, except for medically necessary drugs, while in the workplace, as well as performing work while under the influence of any drugs, is a good starting point.

Research similar company policies in your area to make sure your wording fits local law. Your company’s attorney should also review this policy wording.

An employee who abuses drugs cannot necessarily be fired. Employees generally have some protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensures reasonable accommodations are made for Americans with disabilities. Some of these protections cover people with medical conditions, including drug addiction.

The ADA does not grant total immunity from consequences to employees who struggle with drug abuse. If they are unable to perform their job, harass other employees, or otherwise need unreasonable accommodations to perform their duties, they can be terminated. Exactly what qualifies as unreasonable is legally complex. Consider researching related cases, and asking a lawyer if you are unsure.

Essentially, the ADA protects those with addictions against discrimination in the workplace. You can’t fire an employee just because they need to go to rehab.

At a minimum, an employee’s job must be protected while they seek addiction treatment, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This means they will still have their job when they return from rehab. This leave is generally unpaid for up to 12 weeks, but it ensures the job is protected despite their absence.

Private Conversation

Once you are certain you are within your legal right to do so, talk to the employee in question directly about their drug abuse. Practice some of your talking points and remember to treat them with respect.

“This conversation should be held in private and be calm in tone, but it should also be honest and direct. Layout the options you are giving to the employee. This is often when a “last-chance” agreement is written up and signed by both parties.”

It lays out what treatment options the employee will participate in and what actions will occur if they drop out of the program or return to substance abuse.

Person in a group video call on their laptop

If the employee breaks the agreement, that will generally mean termination or at least a suspension.

Obviously, employers cannot prohibit employees from using drugs or drinking. The consequences must be related to issues at work.

When you talk to the employee, stress your concern for their well-being. Mention how you feel their drug abuse is hurting both them and the company.

Remember to be compassionate. Outline how you and the company will support them in their addiction recovery.

Returning to Work

After an employee returns from rehab, you may want to draft a return-to-work agreement. This outlines your expectations of the employee, including any drug test requirements.

Both parties sign the agreement, ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations and consequences. This can help to establish a clean slate going forward.

Better for Everyone

There is conflicting evidence about whether aggressive tactics to get someone into rehab are effective. Intervention from an employer may be successful because the person needs their job to survive. An employer recognizing that a problem exists may have more impact than conversations with friends or even family members.

It’s more cost-effective to get an employee who needs rehab help than it is to hire someone else. It’s a better solution for both employee and employer.

Consult with a lawyer regarding appropriate legal practices for the situation, and then start a conversation with the employee that comes from a place of compassion and support.

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