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When Employers Ignore Addiction in the Workplace

Employers who suspect someone of using drugs on the job may be reluctant to intervene because they fear they’ll be charged with discrimination.

On Jason’s first day of work at an old-fashioned Wall Street law firm, he was so high on cocaine and heroin that his mother warned him, “You can’t go in there. You don’t look well.”

But as Jason, now nearly ten years sober and with the easy confidence of a successful lawyer, explains, “I was determined to show up, though I should have never been anywhere near an office, let alone the orientation for summer associates. But the way it works, when you get a summer associate gig, you’re bound to get an offer at the end of it and then you start with that firm after you take the Bar. So I went anyway.”

Despite the fact that Jason was asking inappropriate questions about sexual harassment to the HR person on his first day, he still managed to work the whole summer at the firm. “I was doing coke and a lot of pills, I was snorting heroin, and basically getting paid $3,000 a week to do nothing. They never said anything about my behavior; they just didn’t give me any work to do. It was the weirdest experience.”

But Jason isn’t alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 76 percent of people with drug or alcohol problems are employed, and about 19.2 million U.S. workers (15%) reported using or being impaired by alcohol at work at least once in the past year. Despite these statistics, addiction in the workplace is as much a tricky beast for the employer as it is for the addict.

As Dana Wilkie, online editor/manager for the Society for Human Resource Management, explains, there is a fine line between calling out an employee’s behavior and becoming a liability yourself. She shares: “There are tell-tale signs, which a manager should observe and document: 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.”

“However, it’s important that a manager never make accusations about drinking without proof,” she continues. “This can be slanderous and open a company to liability. It could be the worker has an illness or is on legal medication that may make them appear inebriated, when actually they’re not.”

Addiction expert and executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health, Dr. Adi Jaffe concurs, “Accusing someone of being high on the job can cause severe liability, opening the employer up to charges of discrimination. Most employers would approach that with a healthy dose of care and attention in case it might not be true. And the signs [of addiction] aren’t always easy to recognize.”

Jason was never accused of drinking or drugging on the job, even as he moved from one law firm to the next, always being fired for negligence but never questioned for his behaviors. “By my third firm, I had gotten physically addicted to heroin and I would go downstairs and score from this dealer who would come down from the Bronx every day. I would sit in my office with the door closed, which was really weird for a Junior Associate, and get fucked up. And then I would stay there all night, smoking and doing drugs. One time I even had sex with a co-worker, and the guy in the office next to me, this really nice, good guy, was so confused, but no one said anything.”

During Jason’s time at the firm, he finally sought treatment after an intervention, going to Betty Ford for a month. “I lied to my firm, and I told them that I was sick, that I had pneumonia, and made up this complicated story. They fired me as soon as I got back.”

Learn more about how both employees and employers deal with addiction in the workplace in the full article Drugging on the Job: The Continued Denial of Workplace Addiction at The Fix.

When Employers Ignore Addiction in the Workplace

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). When Employers Ignore Addiction in the Workplace. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.