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Clueless on employee addiction

Firms must break their 'conspiracy of silence'

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO

Just like when he was the company wonder kid -- a super sales executive who was tall, suave, good-looking and on a very fast track -- Bob Poznanovich wowed them.

This time he wasn't selling computers, though.

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Instead, he told a stunning story about how drugs had fueled an executive's tumultuous fall from the corporate heights, and how nobody at work stepped forward to break the fall.

It was his story.

The story of someone who grew up in the shadow of Chicago's far Southeast Side steel mills and then raced through the salesman's ranks to become an executive at Chicago-based Zenith Data Systems -- only to blow almost everything on a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit.

As his habit grew, worried company officials, colleagues and customers fretted about him, but nobody confronted him. Finally, the company let him go in a job cutback.

He went out of control, spending his $216,000 severance pay and thousands of dollars more in savings for his coke habit during the next two years.

Now the head of a company that offers guidance in addiction crises, Poznanovich's message at a recent suburban Chicago gathering was that businesses must break "the conspiracy of silence" that often surrounds addicts.

What to do

Indeed, despite years of talk about drug-free workplaces, some companies remain in the dark about workers' addiction problems and what to do about them, according to experts and recent surveys.

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A survey of human-relations officers at U.S. firms showed that more than half didn't know how to identify an addiction-related problem, more than one-third didn't know how to get treatment for addicted workers and one-quarter said their companies view firing someone as preferable to getting them help.

"We've had companies tell us that addiction isn't their problem, so why bother?" said William C. Moyers, a spokesman for Hazelden Foundation, a Minnesota-based addiction research organization, which carried out the survey.

One problem, he said, is that the image of an alcoholic or addict doesn't match reality. Moyers, son of well-known author and television personality Bill Moyers, points to himself as an example of this.

"When somebody like me has a problem, people dismiss it because they can't imagine that somebody of my reputation or last name could have the problem," said Moyers, a recovering addict. His addiction reached a peak a decade ago when he was a journalist with CNN.

At the recent meeting of the Northern Illinois Employee Assistance Professionals Association, where Poznanovich delivered his speech on the silent conspiracy, the message had a strong resonance with some.

Addiction is a hassle

Bill Heffernan, co-president of Employee Resources System Inc., a Chicago-based company, thought of the employers he has encountered who don't want to deal with addicted workers.

"I hear it all the time. I see it all the time, and it drives me wild," Heffernan said. "People say, 'I have an employee who is a drug addict and I'm waiting for him to get caught in the drug test.' I say, 'If you have a problem, deal with it."'

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Hope springs eternal

Experts say workplace interventions can be effective, adding that it often makes a difference if the person in crisis realizes that they can be fired if they don't begin treatment.

"I've never had a person refuse treatment if his job was on the line," said Marguerite Phelps, a Chicago-area drug and alcohol counselor who has carried out interventions for years.

When the company let Poznanovich go in a round of job cuts in late 1992, he withdrew to his condo and his addiction. Sick, nearly broke and his engagement washed up, he turned to his mother in February 1995. She scraped up money for him to go to a treatment center.

He did well and started on a new sales career. Soon, though, he had another problem: A food addiction.

Going through recovery once again, he decided that this time when he went back into the business world he would do something that uses his addiction experiences.

With $5,000 and a partner, who is also a recovering addict, he created his company in St. Paul in 2002.

Two years later it is an 11-person company with offices in Chicago, New York, Boston and Charlotte, booming revenues and expansion plans.

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