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Ask an HR Expert: Alcoholism

Should we fire a manager who reportedly has a drinking problem?

A man in a bottle with a briefcase.

Before considering termination, look at how reliable the accuser is and whether clear evidence exists to support the claim. Who has reported the drinking problem? That can help guide your approach to determining the facts and what, if any, corrective action is appropriate. 

If a manager voluntarily discloses a drinking problem, an employer might help guide the employee on where to seek treatment. An employee assistance program (EAP) is often the first place to begin. If the employer doesn’t have an EAP, the company might have a policy or practice that lists treatment options. 

An employer should also discuss an employee’s rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In most cases, FMLA leave will run concurrently with the time an employee is in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. 

A third option is to engage in an interactive process as outlined in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Like other chronic illnesses, alcoholism may be protected under the ADA. Discussing possible accommodations with the employee may help determine a way to allow him or her to continue to perform essential job functions. The ADA will usually protect an employee beyond the FMLA leave.

If another employee has made a complaint about the manager, HR professionals should first seek evidence to confirm the accusation. Rule out information based solely on hearsay. Have others observed physical, behavioral or psychological changes in this person? Does the manager smell of liquor? Is the person’s speech slurred? Observations along these lines may constitute reasonable suspicion that alcohol is being used, and they should be documented. 

An employer should then discuss the observations with the manager and, in accordance with company policy, send the individual immediately for an alcohol test. A positive test result could lead to disciplinary action as outlined in the company’s policy.

While some employers have a zero-tolerance policy, many today are using “last-chance agreements” as an alternative to termination. These agreements offer employees an opportunity to retain their job if they meet certain conditions. However, employers can still expect the individuals to meet performance standards. 

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines also allow an employer to require an employee to submit to periodic alcohol tests as a condition of continued employment. 

An employer taking the above steps will provide the employee struggling with alcoholism the opportunity to get needed help and keep his or her job. HR professionals who follow federal and state regulations may help their organizations avoid a defamation suit if the complaint turns out to be untrue.  

Patricia Graves, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.


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