Dear Dave: I am a manager, and I am also a recovering alcoholic. I try hard to be a listening ear for my employees, and I don’t go around boasting that I have been saved and that I am someone special because I have quit drinking. It has always been a private battle for me, and I work hard to stay sober.
Because I have come to grips with my disease, I am sensitive to others who might need help. I manage 18 people, and I believe at least two of them need help with their drinking problems. Just like I did, these employees often come in late, and I can tell they are suffering. And they have made mistakes, but no one has gotten hurt. I don’t want to come across as “Mr. Clean” and act all high and mighty – I just want to help. What advice do you have? – R
Dear R: Let me say this: You sound as if you are a caring leader for your employees, but I don’t want you to be an “enabler-leader.” I admire the fact that you want to help, instead of flying into a rage and just firing the two employees you are talking about. You can reach out to help, but if they refuse help – and are in complete denial and continue to cause errors – you may need to consider a termination process.
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I think if we fired everyone who has come in to work hungover, we may end up with nothing but firing and hiring problems. Drinking [in moderation] is legitimate and is a right of every adult. However, when drinking starts to rule our lives and causes problems for our families, friends, and employers, “tough love” must be practiced and ultimatums must be presented to the problem drinkers. In short, every alcoholic worker should be given an opportunity to mend their alcoholic lives.
Talking about mental health with your employees at work can be tricky. I am having a hard time responding to your letter, because I want to be very careful in what I need to tell you. I don’t want any of my readers to say I am overstepping my authority and that I am trying to be too hard or too soft on problem drinkers at work. I want to be helpful, and I want to give you the most appropriate advice I can possibly give you. I have a great deal of empathy for you and your challenge, and I have first-hand experience at taking action on your problem.
Being there for your staff
I am not a psychologist, but I do know that, as a manager, your job is to create an open, caring, inclusive and safe environment that allows your workers to come to work and be able to do the best work they can. You cannot go to their homes and grab bottles out of their hands; however, you can discuss and model the best practices that will help them be the best they can be. During this pandemic, you have enough on your plate. However, teaching, leading, supporting and inspiring your valued employees is and will always be a vast part of your job description.
So, how can you open up a conversation with these two individuals about their drinking, and how they are really doing, without overstepping your job description? I think it starts with reaching out and just talking to them. But remember, that it's not your job to be Sigmund Freud and "fix" these people. Also, because you have spotted a potential problem, they might worry that you don’t see them as savable, capable and credible. Take “firing” off the table and talk to them heart-to-heart with compassion and an eye toward helping them. They need to care that you care.
I would approach your employees only after you have “a case” for even having a discussion with them. Do your homework and discuss actual incidents, rather than how you “feel” about them and their drinking. And do not beat them up. Approach them with the mindset that they are worthy of support and assistance and not candidates for immediate dismissal because they are too broken to be helped. They don’t want their nose rubbed into the dirt; they need your support but not your chastising. Often, people with drinking or drug problems, are masters at deceit and lying. Be respectful, control your emotions, and talk frankly, so they can do the same.
Finally, if it appears that they have “come clean” with their substance abuse problem, offer professional help. They deserve help, because – after all – they are human.
Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.