Curry: Handling the company’s alcoholic golden girl proves tricky

ManagementNovember 11, 2012 

Q. When our general manager unexpectedly left the state, our company's owner asked if I thought I could handle the GM responsibility. I've never turned down a challenge, so I said "yes."

What I didn't expect were the people challenges. One of the big ones, "Carol," has me stumped. She's our company's salesperson and critical to our entire operation. She's also a drunk and has lost her driver's license, meaning we have to taxi her to client appointments.

Most of our clients love her. Some won't deal with her because she's gone off on them, which hurts sales because our customer service agents don't have Carol's ability to close deals.

Carol had a bender last weekend and didn't show up on Monday. We were worried and sent someone to her house Monday afternoon. They found her sleeping on her couch, with whiskey bottles on her coffee table.When they tried to put Carol into the shower; she screamed at them that "it was her business" and they left.

What do I do?

 

A. When an employee considers whisky bottles good friends, employers enter Americans with Disabilities Act territory. According to ADA.gov, "an alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job."

Although employers must accommodate alcoholics who can effectively perform their jobs, they may discipline or fire alcoholics who repeatedly miss work (an essential job function) or those whose alcohol use negatively affects job performance or conduct. Additionally, employers with policies banning employees from showing up at work under alcohol's influence can enforce those policies.

Carol's strengths, coupled with her performance problems, place her and your company at a critical junction. Your path forward -- an honest discussion with Carol focused on her performance issues -- not her alcoholism. As your employees who went to check on Carol found, alcohol-addicted employees can react like momma bears defending their young when caught in the act.

Let "Carol" know you want her to keep her and can continue to accommodate by furnishing taxis. Let her know, however, that if she fails to show up at work, or shows up inebriated and abuses clients or co-workers, she fails to meet basic job expectations and risks discipline up to termination. In short, place the core problem back in Carol's hands. If she can't fix "her business," however, she makes it yours -- because you as an employer have the right to set work performance standards.

Q. My boss just fired me and handed me an agreement to sign if I want severance pay. If I sign it, I get a month of pay but I have to promise not to sue. Does this mean he thinks I can sue? And should I sign? I'd rather not call a lawyer.

 

A. If you're considering suing your employer and feel you have a good case, don't sign it. If, however, you have no interest in a lawsuit, sign it; you'll get a month's pay in exchange for an easily kept promise.

"Ask yourself," says employment attorney-turned HR-consultant Richard Birdsall, "why your employer fired you. If your employer had a valid reason, sign and take the money. If, however, this termination violates agreements such as a 'you've got this job for a year' or results from your employer's prejudicial discrimination, seek legal advice."

Your employer's offer doesn't necessarily signal a belief you have a case. Because employers don't need to give post-employment pay, some ask for waivers as insurance against frivolous but burdensome lawsuits before they cut severance checks. If, however, your employer actually fears you may sue, you may be able to negotiate for additional severance pay or other items such as positive letters of reference.

If you're handling this yourself, make sure the waiver spells out exactly how much money you'll receive in exchange for signing the agreement, along with how your employer plans to handle the taxes -- i.e., do you get a month's net or gross pay? Also, take a look at any requirements you'll need to observe (for example, most agreements prevent you from disparaging your former employer once you accept the money) and assure you your employer won't badmouth you to prospective further employers.

The bottom line: Severance pay can be a win-win for you and your employer. Don't, however, sign before you've taken a serious look at the offer.

 

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management- employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com.

 

 

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