As a small business entrepreneur, it’s your responsibility to deal with employees when they aren’t meeting your professional standards and when they aren’t following the rules. Things get even more complicated when they’re in suspected violation of both.
Most businesses have some kind of policy on substance abuse, whether it’s the strict prohibition of illegal substance abuse or a simple policy to come to work sober. When you suspect that an employee may be violating these rules, it’s often difficult to tell with certainty, and even more difficult to broach the subject in a tactful, productive, and fair way.
Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to ensure your actions are appropriate and beneficial to everyone involved.
Make Your Substance Abuse Policy Clear
Your first job is to make sure your company’s substance abuse policies are crystal clear. In your employment manuals, this should be explicitly stated, and the consequences for violating these policies should also be outlined. There are some mandatory stipulations, as covered by the Drug Free Workplace Act, such as the prohibition of manufacture or distribution of controlled substances in the workplace, but other policies are up to your discretion.
Know the Signs
Your employee may not stagger into work belligerently drunk, but you may notice signs of a recreational substance abuse problem interfering with his/her performance. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) publishes a fantastic list of signs and symptoms to watch for, some of the most important of which are recapped here:
- Coming to work with headaches, nausea or other unpleasant symptoms
- Experiencing mood swings
- Coming in early, leaving early, or exhibiting frequent symptoms of tiredness and exhaustion
- Redness of eyes or difficulty concentrating
- Trembling hands or flushness in the face
- Patterns of secrecy and/or deception
You may also directly witness or overhear evidence that the employee is engaging in repeated substance abuse in or outside of work, especially in a small business environment.
Establish a Dialogue
Depending on the employee’s history and performance, you may wish to open a dialogue about the behaviors you’re observing. Have a closed-door meeting with the employee and warn them that their performance is slipping. The more specific and formal you can be here, the better, such as citing a pattern of lateness with an explicitly written warning.
You can also open yourself to them on a personal level, if you so choose, offering to help them with their personal struggles by offering time off, helping them find the resources they need to recover, or even just having a candid conversation about what they’re going through.
Also, according to American Addiction Centers, it’s important to address the individual as a whole, and look at how lifestyle, environmental health, and potential co-occurring mental health disorders could be playing a role in their issues.
Taking this step can help correct the employee’s behavior without escalating the situation any further, especially if you write out a list of actions that need to happen for the employment to remain satisfactory.
Testing and Investigation
If your conversational efforts don’t lead to a formal action plan or other resolution, and the pattern of behavior continues, you may be forced to investigate the situation in more detail. Searching company property for illegal substances may be necessary to prevent certain types of violations. Drug testing is also legal in most workplaces in the United States, especially if it poses an environmental or safety hazard to your other employees. Even if you can’t find direct evidence of drug or substance abuse, a lagging work performance is grounds for disciplinary action — which is your next step in this process.
Assuming you haven’t made any progress with your conversation and warnings, and you have some formal evidence that your employee is not performing up to your standards and policies, your next step is to take disciplinary action. This should be dependent on what’s stated in your policies and the severity of the infringement; stick to the rules you set as much as possible, and consider whether this is their first offense. Unpaid leave, benefit removal, basic write-ups, and termination are all possibilities here, so consider your options carefully.
It’s up to you whether you want to reveal the cause for this disciplinary action, but either way, this is a good opportunity to remind the rest of your employees what your policies on substance abuse are. If you choose to keep your employee onboard with lighter disciplinary actions, you can consider investing in an employee wellness program, or going out of your way to help them through the recovery process — it all depends on your business philosophy, your HR budget, and how invested the employee is within your organization.
In the future, the best thing you can do is be as clear and upfront about your substance abuse policy as possible, and be proactive when you notice signs of abuse.
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