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Lynne Curry: Tread carefully if you suspect an employee is addicted to drugs

Lynne Curry

When "Nancy" laid her purse on the table, a bottle rolled out. You grabbed to catch it and as you handed it back, you saw the label: Vicodin.

Suddenly, everything made sense. How she careened from life of the work party to withdrawn sullenness. Nancy's frequent visits to the bathroom and unexplained breaks -- you'd thought she was hiding out to text.

Nancy's slump periods when she barely kept up with her workload alternating with times when she ran rings around everyone. Nancy's late arrivals and slurred speech -- though when you talked with her you hadn't smelled alcohol. Just this morning, Nancy forgetting her computer log in and unable to work until IT arrived.

Your new suspicion -- you employ a drug addict.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 2 million people in the United States are addicted to opioid pain relievers. The CDC labels the problem an epidemic, noting that drug-treatment admissions for prescription opioids increased seven times between 1998 and 2010.

Key warning signs include:

• Excessive sick days and frequent absences without advance notification or with improbable excuses;

• Unreliability in meeting deadlines and keeping appointments;

• Work that alternates between dazzling and sub-par performance;

• Confusion and difficulty concentrating or remembering simple instructions;

• Frequent, irritable flare-ups and disintegrating relations with co-workers;

• Wearing long sleeves in warm weather and progressive deterioration in grooming and hygiene;

• Slurred or slow speech, bloodshot or watery eyes, tremors, sweating, constricted pupils; and

• Roller-coaster moods.

If you suspect you employ a drug addict, tread carefully. Any of the potential warning signs may stem from non-drug causes. For example, allergies create watery eyes. Sleep disrupted by kids, pets or worries can cause irritability and moodiness.

Further, although you can terminate an employee who uses illegal drugs, firing an employee addicted to prescription drugs proves legally complicated. The Americans with Disabilities Act As Amended, or ADAAA, may protect workers from being fired if they became addicted to prescription pain medications they used as prescribed. The ADAAA also protects employees who don't illegally use drugs, but whose employers incorrectly perceive them as addicts.

The ADAAA, however, allows employers to actively combat workplace drug use. Employers may insist that employees show up for work free from drug influence, may employ mandatory drug testing and use evidence of drug abuse as grounds for termination.

Many employers choose to help employees break free of drug addiction. Common accommodations include referring employees to counseling and employee assistance programs; providing paid or unpaid leave or flexible scheduling so employees can attend support groups or counseling sessions; and giving employees a 30- to 60-day extended unpaid leave so they can get clean in a residential treatment program.

If you confront a suspected drug addict with problematic performance, work habits or attendance, focus on observed behavior and work performance. While you absolutely can hold employees accountable to meet work standards, don't expect addicts to come clean about their addiction. Not only aren't you a diagnostician, but most addicts have years of experience lying about their use.

Finally, if you consider an employee addicted to prescription drugs a valuable employee worth saving, give straight talk -- about performance and work habits -- a solid try. For some addicts, learning their cover up no longer covers proves a wake-up call and creates a turnaround.

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. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE