Question:

We couldn’t believe our luck when “Brad” started working for us. COVID had hit, and we’d had to furlough a number of employees.

Brad was a neighbor and I ran into him one day and he said he’d decided he’d “had it” working for large companies and envied me my small start-up. One thing led to another and I wound up offering Brad a job.  I didn’t check references. I didn’t feel I needed to.

Brad’s first month with us was great. He brought a network of potential clients with him and immediately our sales shot up.

That’s why what happened the next month was so disturbing.

Our CFO brought me one of Brad’s expense reports. Brad and a client ate steaks at one of the open, upscale restaurants in town. The bill was for $400. Brad submitted it for reimbursement.

The CFO said he’d thought there was mistake, that Brad had picked up someone else’s tab by accident. He checked with Brad, who said, “You’ve got to spend money to make money.” He said Brad hadn’t smelled of booze, but of wintergreen.

I asked the CFO to contact the restaurant. I felt we should pay for the client’s drinks, but not Brad’s. The CFO came back thirty minutes later and let me know that Brad had been the only one drinking. That was a shock. Brad must have put away of lot of expensive whiskey, and it embarrasses me that he drank that much in front of one of our company’s clients.

I brought Brad in. I told him we were a small company and couldn’t afford $400 lunches. He started to argue and reminded me that his contacts were bringing in more than enough revenue to pay for a few “good” lunches.  He leaned forward in his chair and I smelled the unmistakable odor of wintergreen. That told me Brad was masking the booze smell and that’s when I told Brad weren’t going to pay for his booze.

Brad continued to argue, saying I should consider his drinks business development expenses. I flatly told him I didn’t want him returning to the office with booze on his breath. I said I was instructing the CFO to not reimburse any alcohol expenses.

Even though Brad no longer expenses his drinks, he’s clearly still drinking. Rumors about it have circulated in the office. My wife has also told me that Brad’s wife has moved out and filed for divorce.

I don’t want to lose Brad. Our company needs him. The problem seems to be the afternoons. Brad generally gets to work at nine, and in the morning he’s on his phone and generating proposals. Is there an easy way to completely restrict Brad’s lunchtime drinking without creating a policy that bans alcohol for other managers who don’t have a problem?

Answer:

You, your company, and Brad have a bigger problem than the afternoons.  

As an employer, you can establish a drug and alcohol-free workplace policy that prohibits employees from using, being impaired by or possessing alcohol in the workplace. If you want to allow other managers to occasionally drink at lunch, you need to write this exception into your policy.

The problem you face is Brad and his drinking. As an employer your options are limited and the risk you take is huge. For example, suppose Brad gets in an accident driving back to your worksite after lunch and hurts or kills someone. What will you say when your company gets sued–“We didn’t pay for the drinks?”

Employers have a legitimate business interest in ensuring that employees are not impaired during work. Employers don’t have a legitimate business interest in regulating an employee’s conduct outside of work.

You need specific guidance, and you can get it by calling one of the alcohol treatment centers.

You may also need to ask your company attorney for guidance. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically allows employers to hold alcoholics to the same performance and conduct standards as other employees, federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance cautions employers from attempting to regulate off-duty alcoholism. When employers require that employees who are or are perceived to be alcoholics abstain from drinking alcohol while off-duty as a condition of continued employment, it likely violates the ADA.

Finally, I’ve been asked by many clients to write in more detail about high-functioning alcoholics, as alcoholism has grown exponentially during COVID. I’ll do that in a post coming out March 2nd.

6 thoughts on “Alcoholic Super-star

  1. I’ve long believed there are functional alcoholics and dysfunctional or non-functional alcoholics. The functional ones drink at night but come to work sober and stay sober at work. On that basis, it’s not really the employer’s business. But at the point that the drinking begins to affect work at all, such as this employee, I feel it crosses over to dysfunctional. Now it is the employer’s business. Nip it in the bud now, or it will only get worse.

  2. Lynne–insightful comments, as ever. Yes, Brad is an alcoholic. It’s too bad that the company doesn’t already have a no-alcohol or limited-alcohol-for-special-occasion policy. Talking to an alcohol treatment center staffer seems like a very wise idea. And, alcohol didn’t just become a problem during the pandemic, but perhaps in some settings it’s more visible now.

  3. Lynne, I didn’t know that alcoholism has grown exponentially during COVID. What is causing this and has it been proven by credible research? I know the isolation caused by COVID restrictions is severe–and may result in increased drinking–but I thought that was generally felt by seniors who no longer work. I never knew it was affecting those who continue to go to work and I wonder what is causing this. I am looking forward to reading your post.

  4. Thanks, Karen, I’ve received this information from multiple clients. I’m starting my research Friday based on their requests. Thanks!

  5. For those curious, I have confirmed that alcohol abuse has escalated during the pandemic. I’m working on the March 2nd post & will have available for you why this has occurred; statistics; and what employers can do.

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