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Drunk at Work: What HR Can Do About Employees Drinking on the Job

Spate of inquiries about on-the-job drunkenness raises questions about protocol

A woman is sitting at a desk with her head resting on a desk.

​Your colleague in the next cubicle seems out of sorts: Her eyes are bloodshot; when she walks to the bathroom, her gait is unsteady; her phone conversations are marred by slurred speech.

Is she ill? On medication? Or could she be drunk?

In recent days, the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) HR Knowledge Center received an unusual number of inquiries about how to handle workers inebriated on the job.

"The fact that employees are presenting at work under the influence of alcohol is an indication that their drinking is significantly impacting their judgment—a sign that they are in desperate need of help," said Tammy Hoyman, CEO of Des Moines, Iowa-based Employee & Family Resources Inc., which provides employee prevention, intervention and treatment services.

Time of Year May Bring on Drinking

The spate of SHRM inquiries about on-the-job drinking could reflect the time of year, workplace attorneys and substance abuse experts said.

"I suspect winter depression—or boredom—may be playing into it," said Robin Shea, a partner with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Winston-Salem, N.C. "It's also possible that not everyone was able to immediately end the bad habits they picked up during the holiday season."  

January and February can be depressing months for some people. The holidays are over, the days are cold and sunlight is sparse.

"We do know that seasonal affective disorder is more prevalent at this time of year," said Pam Calvano, director of the Michiana Employee Assistance Program, which provides employee assistance program services to employers in St. Joseph County, Indiana.

It's likely that most employers will eventually encounter a worker with an alcohol problem, Hoyman said.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) in New York City, alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffers from alcohol abuse or dependence. That doesn't include several million more who engage in risky, binge-drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems, Hoyman said.

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Accommodating Alcoholism]

Drunk, Ill or on Medication?

Managers should know the telltale signs of on-the-job drinking, but they should never accuse a worker of being inebriated, Shea said.

"It's possible that an employee with an illness or who is on legal medication may be too impaired to work safely or effectively," she said. "An employee in this situation … should not be subjected to punitive measures."

Substance abuse experts suggest that employers focus on what they can observe—bloodshot eyes, an odor of alcohol, slurred speech—without trying to figure out the cause.

"Managers should never be put in the position to diagnose the problem," Calvano said. "Identifying behaviors of concern and stating those observations with proper documentation should be the extent of their interaction with suspected intoxication. Point out what is observed without specifically identifying alcohol use. For example, 'I am not sure what is wrong, but I am concerned by your unsteady gait and slurred words.' "  

The only way to be certain that a worker is drunk is to have the worker take a blood alcohol test, a breathalyzer or some similar test, Shea said.  

To Test or Not to Test

An employer should not request or require an alcohol test unless there is "reasonable cause," Shea said. This could include slurred speech, an odor of alcohol, an accident that appears to have been caused by substance abuse, impaired mobility or the discovery of empty bottles of alcohol in the employee's desk drawer.

An employee can refuse to take an alcohol test, Calvano said. But a worker whose condition of employment required agreeing to alcohol testing for reasonable cause can likely be terminated for this refusal, and the employer would probably be on sound legal footing, Hoyman said. She added that employers should check state and local laws on workplace drug and alcohol testing.

In the absence of a company policy, it's wise to consult with a workplace attorney on the legality of requiring such testing or on the legality of firing a worker who refuses to undergo such testing, Hoyman said. This consultation should happen long before a manager is faced with a worker who might be drunk on the job, she said.

In the absence of a specific policy that the employee has  agreed to abide by, Shea suggested that:

  • A manager document his or her observations of the employee regarding behavior, slurred speech or odor, perhaps with one or two witnesses.
  • A manager take the employee aside, again with HR or managerial witnesses, to discuss the behavior.
  • If the employee doesn't have a legitimate explanation for the behavior, have a manager drive the employee to the alcohol testing site, assuming the organization has one.
  • The manager should stay at the site during the test and then escort the employee back to the worksite or drive him or her home.
  • If the test is positive, require the employee to go through rehabilitation, or face discipline or suspension, depending on the employer's policies.

Extenuating Circumstances?

Shea said employers may want to consider extenuating circumstances if a worker is drunk on the job.

"Bereavement could certainly be an extenuating circumstance, as could a divorce or a child custody proceeding," she said. "To avoid discrimination claims, be careful that you are not more 'merciful' with employees of a given race, sex, national origin or other protected category. As an additional defense, employers who make these occasional exceptions [due to extenuating circumstances] should document thoroughly the reason for the exception."  

Hoyman said the employer's response should also take into account the company's overall experience with the employee, the impact of the drinking on the company and the workplace, and how others have been treated in similar circumstances.

"Generally, we recommend compassion and accommodations for employees who suffer from a substance use disorder to allow them to get help, but also recommend using caution with substance use in the workplace," she said. "In most workplaces, impairment due to alcohol or drugs poses risks and dangers to everyone. It's prudent to take actions that remove the intoxicated employee or isolate [the individual] to a designated area, such as the HR department or a nurse's office, until they can be transported home or to a medical facility."


According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if he or she is qualified to perform the essential functions of a job. In such instances, an employer may be required to provide an accommodation to the individual.

However, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an individual whose use of alcohol adversely affects his or her job performance or conduct, Hoyman said.

Hoyman acknowledged that despite these accommodation requirements, there can be a stigma attached to alcoholism that isn't attached to other ADA-covered conditions. Employers should proceed carefully when it comes to employees who struggle with alcoholism.

"The stereotypes of the alcoholic as less reliable, trustworthy or productive are based on outdated beliefs and assumptions about addiction," she said. "According to the NCADD, addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. Similar to other chronic, relapsing diseases such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease, drug addiction can be managed successfully. And as with other chronic diseases, it is not uncommon for a person to relapse and begin abusing substances again."

ADA accommodations might include time off to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or other rehabilitation. It is important, Shea said, that the employer not treat the employee who has alcoholism differently from an employee who does not have alcoholism but who shows up to work hung over a few times a year.

"The employer couldn't simply chuckle at employee A, who isn't an alcoholic, for coming to work hung over after a night of binge drinking while disciplining employee B, who is an alcoholic, for doing the same thing," she said.

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