Thursday, July 24, 2008

Supervisor Confusion about Substance Abuse

I understand that alcohol and drug problems are costly problems for business and industry, but why is it so difficult for managers to identify poor job performance and refer such employees?

A. Employees with chemical dependency problems are unable to consistently control the time, place, and amount of alcohol or drug use. Behavior will eventually interfere with job performance, attendance, or quality of work. It can occur quickly in the case of some drug problems, but could take 15 to 20 years to become apparent for some alcoholic employees. This is frustrating for employers and also for the chemically dependent worker, who may do whatever is necessary to make up for job performance shortcomings. This explains the up-and-down performance pattern, improved performance that follows a corrective interview, or extra assignments that might be gladly accepted or requested. In response supervisors tend to grade on a performance curve, real or imagined, that is higher than actually deserved. In effect, the troubled employee's coping strategy to avoid confrontation works. Combine this pattern with well-practiced defenses used to explain other performance discrepancies, and you can easily see how difficult it can be to manage this type of employee.

Due to inaccurate in formation and mistaken beliefs about alcoholism or addictive disease, people who are close to the addict (alcoholic) "enable." This behavior pattern occurs in personal relationships with addicts, both at home and at work. There are usually persons in relationships with addicts who are considered primary enablers.

Enabling at work is behavior exhibited by coworkers or supervisors that helps the addict not realize or face the consequences of his/or her problem behavior resulting directly or indirectly from the alcohol or drug use. Enabling typically appears as the "right" thing to do in response to the problem behavior but helps the alcoholic or addict escape responsibility for actions or problematic events. The ability of the addict to deny, rationalize, externalize, and minimize problems while having others accept excuses and explanations

Enabling may be so well accomplished that the alcoholic or addict may appear as a person with no problems. In the earliest stages of addictive disease, this person could be perceived as the most competent, well-liked, and socially accepted worker in the organization. As addictive disease grows worse, problems follow --- and enabling increases. The alcoholic's past history of job success without problems may span decades. This keeps managers unsuspecting of an alcohol or drug problem. They easily believe some other problem explains job performance issues. These problems are often symptoms of the primary addiction. Supervisors or coworkers are easily led or manipulated to excuse, help, make up for shortcomings, or in other ways support and protect the addicted worker. These enabling patterns can continue in the face of late-stage addiction, such as alcohol on the breath, erratic and disturbing mood swings, and obvious withdrawal symptoms.

Eventually the enabling behavior becomes so automatic and institutionalized in the company, that only a crisis will break the pattern. Often this crisis is one that causes extreme embarrassment, financial loss, or other cost to the organization. Unfortunately, the response to such crises is often termination or transfer at great expense to the organization. The loss of a potentially valuable employee is the real tragedy. Sometimes medical retirements are arranged for workers who have become too ill to function. When this happens, the life span of such employees is often shortened, due to uncontrolled drinking supported by a fixed income. An ensuing decrease in the alcoholic’s interest in treatment and an increase in medical and social dysfunction accompany this financial independence.