I took a huge pay cut two years ago to work for a small nonprofit. I wanted a less stressful job, one where I’d be helping people. I love my job and our organization’s mission, but I’m also afraid for the future. I’m scared because our executive director is an alcoholic.
I recognize the signs. When she comes near me in the mornings or after lunch, I smell alcohol on her breath. At least once a week, she sends emails in the evening that make no sense or include suggestive language. The situation’s getting worse. She slurs when speaking to us in the late afternoon. Our front-desk person tries to protect our agency by putting callers who ask for the director through to me. Although we’re too small to have a deputy director, everyone knows I held a managerial job before I came to work here.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed our director has a problem. This summer, several of us agreed to meet downtown for lunch after a morning team-building event. The director offered that she could take the five of us in her car so we wouldn’t be challenged hunting for parking spaces. Everyone politely gave her reasons for taking their own cars or riding with others.
I’d like to talk with her about it, to at least point out that she needs to be cautious about driving, but I hesitate. She’s extremely sensitive. I don’t think anyone else wants to bring up the subject with her, though we talk about the situation among ourselves. I’m aware the others look to me to do something.
Other than talking with her, or sending an anonymous letter to the board of directors, what can I do?
Everyone knows your director has a drinking problem serious enough that it risks her or others’ lives and shows up in slurring and bizarre emails, yet no one raises the issue with her? This makes you part of the problem. As I wrote in “Navigating Conflict,” that’s like pulling a rancid package of chicken out of the fridge only to put it back in, hoping the chill temperatures might improve it.
I understand your hesitation. You might fear losing your job by addressing a situation your director considers hidden and personal. If she’s someone who can’t hear the truth, you might. On the other hand, you risk losing more if you remain silent. If she drives drunk and kills a family, your silence makes you complicit in the accident.
You may fear making the situation worse — except, isn’t the situation becoming worse the longer you do nothing? You also carry on your shoulders the other worry you voiced, that your director’s drinking could damage your nonprofit.
You have two options: You can speak with your director or with your board chair. If you decide to speak with your director, proceed respectfully. You might say, “I’d like to bring something up, but would ask your permission to speak honestly as it’s a sensitive topic.” Then tell her the specific behaviors you’ve noticed. Speak factually, perhaps offering her some of her own emails, and without judgment. Don’t tell her that everyone’s talking about the situation, as that adds shame to an already difficult situation.
She may be in denial. High-performing, functional alcoholics often are. Further, don’t assume you can convince your executive director to change her behavior until she decides the downsides of drinking excessively outweigh the benefits she derives from drinking. Most functional alcoholics enjoy alcohol’s effects and view drinking as a socially and legally acceptable strategy for winding down at the end of the day. Major change generally takes multiple nudges from others and from life. But you’ll have started movement toward a positive outcome by bringing her not-so-secret secret into the open.
If this seems too risky, ask your board chair if the board has a process for raising issues in confidence. Please don’t wait too long.