Monday, February 4, 2008

Handle alcoholics firmly, but constructively

Charlie, a top salesman for an Alberta software company had been drinking a little too much at company functions and with clients. His boss was starting to notice that Charlie was ringing up larger-than- average bar tabs when entertaining clients. At first, the boss turned a blind eye due to Charlie's exceptional sales performance. At the same time that the boss was noticing Charlie's increased use of alcohol, key clients were taking note too. Charlie was a bit too loud, wanted to stay at the bar longer than most and seemed to be in a hurry to get a drink. They started to wonder if the drink was more important than the business they were trying to conduct. They also started to quietly question Charlie's ability to maintain their account if he continued his heavy drinking.

Alcoholism or heavy drinking is a serious problem for businesses. An estimated 15 per cent of the workforce can be considered problem drinkers. These drinkers are functional in that they remain at work and perform at a satisfactory or even above-average level. Yet their drinking can damage their health, their home life and if left unchecked, their career. Worse still, many people who have trouble with alcoholism also suffer from depression or anxiety. A pattern emerges over time in which alcohol is used to self-medicate, to reduce worry and nervousness or provide a temporary escape from the blues.

Taken together the symptoms are a warning for employers to take substance abuse seriously. The law dictates it too. Substance abuse is considered a disability, making dismissal, demotion, suspension or discipline due to problem drinking or substance abuse discriminatory.

So, getting help for employees showing signs of substance abuse is the best way to handle the issue. But many have difficulty identifying when there is an issue and raising it constructively.

Indicators that alcohol is a problem in high functioning staff are subtle since top performers, like Charlie, usually do not allow their drinking behaviour to affect their work too much in the early stages. It's more likely to show up at home. In the later stages, however, the problem is easier to spot. The problem drinker will be frequently absent or late, especially around weekends and after holidays. They may get a lot of colds, flus or headaches and they may leave early or disappear from the job and be difficult to locate. Their quality of work suffers with periods of high and low productivity, poor judgment, carelessness and difficulty concentrating.

People may start to notice a problem when the rate and amount of alcohol the problem drinker consumes in their presence starts to increase. As with Charlie, the first signs of damage are found in the client/work or social relationships. People notice increased interest and consumption of alcohol on the part of the problem drinker, who may seem irritable, anxious or depressed. He may seem more sarcastic, argumentative or display an inflated sense of self-importance. When queried about big alcohol-related expense tabs or about a tendency to pursue alcohol-related meetings and activities to entertain clients, high-functioning problem drinkers may get defensive about receiving feedback. They may have domestic problems such as separation, divorce or trouble with their children.

Denial, defensiveness and self-aggrandizement contribute to the tendency for supervisors to steer clear of conversations about alcohol consumption with high performers. And the old saw, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," can deter the most well-intentioned supervisor. Rather than upset the status quo and cause a decline in productivity, many would rather turn a blind eye until forced to concede there may be a problem.

But these difficult topics must be broached for the health of the high performer and the sake of the company. The key to beginning a conversation with an employee about drug or alcohol abuse is to frame it as a health, safety and productivity issue. Present your concerns matter-of-factly while backing them up with supporting evidence. For instance, Charlie's supervisor held a private meeting with him and described factually what he saw occurring about the alcohol consumption. The supervisor backed himself up by showing Charlie the comparatively higher expenses overtime related to Charlie's "client entertainment" budget.

Being a top performer, Charlie argued that the tab was bigger because he entertained more and brought in more business as a result. The supervisor countered that Charlie's health and his reputation as a competent account manager were important to the company. He talked about the company image and what he hoped clients experienced when they were with the organization's top staff. The supervisor also reduced Charlie's defensiveness by acknowledging his contribution and thanking him for it. However, the conversation was focused on the supervisor's discomfort with the situation and, rightly, did not become a "Charlie appreciation" session.

Employers should be aware that often, troubled staff are adept at manipulating such conversations into discussions of not being appreciated at work or being picked on. By keeping the focus on issues with company image, company spending and the supervisor's own personal concern for his or her subordinate, the employer highlights the need for the employee to take action.

The supervisor told Charlie that he was sufficiently concerned that he recommended Charlie use the company's Employee Assistance Program. He told Charlie he'd be looking for a change in people's opinion of him and a shift in consumption rates.

Charlie entered therapy and recognized that his chosen profession (sales) helped him obtain alcohol with ease and legitimize its overuse. Staff working in construction, utilities, wholesale, retail, finance, insurance and real estate are most prone to alcohol abuse according to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission. He knew he had to change how he did business if he was to be a personal and work success. He decided to abstain from drinking alcohol and, with his supervisor's support, Charlie changed his sales, client appreciation and relationship building strategy to emphasize healthier pursuits that de-emphasized alcohol consumption. He stayed in the business, salvaged his reputation and continued to take pride in his sales achievements.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.
They can be contacted at:
© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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