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Risk Management & Compliance

HR Regulations: Handling Employees Who May Be Drunk at Work

Christine Batten, PHR
by Christine Batten, PHR on February 16, 2017

As an employer, you may sometimes find yourself in a situation that isn’t outlined in a guide book. For example, what if a worker is under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job?drunk at work

Believe it or not, it’s an issue that comes up often this time of year, specifically in northern states where a “winter depression” is common. But whether you run your business in the cold, or in the sunshine, you should know the proper way to handle an employee who may be drunk at work.

Here are our top four tips.

1. Know What to Look For

Know the signs, but never accuse an employee of being drunk at work. It could be that the employee is sick or on a legal medication that impairs them. If that’s the case, you wouldn’t want to jump to any conclusions or punish someone unjustly.

A good plan is to be aware, and watch for the following things:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Odor of alcohol
  • Slurred speech

2. Do Not Diagnose the Problem

As a manager, DO NOT diagnose an employee’s problem. What you should do is identify the behaviors that concern you, state them and document them.

For example, “I am not sure what is wrong, but I am concerned by your slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.”

The only way to know for certain whether an employee is drunk at work is to have the worker take a blood alcohol test.

3. Remember, You Are Not Required to Test

You don’t need a positive test to take action as long as you have “reasonable suspicion” according to HR regulations. Many employers do not have a written drug testing policy — but that doesn’t mean the employer can’t do anything about what’s happening.

Reasonable suspicion means the employer has a legitimate reason, based on logic, facts or observation, to believe an employee has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

Here are a few examples:

  • Direct observation of drug use
  • A report from a reliable source that an employee is using drugs or alcohol
  • Evidence an employee has used, possessed, sold, solicited or transferred drugs while on the clock

4. Remember, You Don’t Need Proof to Take Disciplinary Action

Is it “reason enough”? Some employers feel like they need “proof” to discipline or fire someone. But as long as you document your observations and don’t speculate or discriminate, you don’t necessarily need proof to take action.

Here are some best practices:

  • Discuss the employee’s behavior with the employee in front of one or two witnesses.
  • To avoid discrimination claims, be sure and apply the same standards to all employees.
  • If you make an exception for an employee who might be going through a personal issue at the time, make sure to document it.
  • If you suspect an employee is under the influence, it’s best to send them home. Make sure you arrange for transportation for that person.

Here’s one more thing to consider: People with alcoholism, who are substantially limited in a major life activity, will have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, even if a person is considered “disabled,” an employer may still discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose current use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct.

Likewise, an employer need not allow the use of alcohol or being under the influence in the workplace as a “reasonable accommodation.”

If you’re still unsure of how to handle an employee who comes to work under the influence of alcohol, be sure to contact FrankCrum’s team of HR experts for guidance.Navigating HR Roadblocks

Christine Batten, PHR
Christine Batten, PHR

Christine has over 20 years of HR related experience with a background in labor and employment law.