I took a huge pay cut two years ago to work for a small nonprofit. I wanted a less stressful job, and 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. Our ED 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 ED 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 ED has a problem. This summer, several of us agreed to meet downtown for lunch after a morning team-building event. The ED 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 ED 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 ED 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 ED’s drinking could damage your nonprofit.

You have two options—you can speak with your ED or with your Board Chair. If you decide to speak with your ED, 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 ED 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.

Those of you who’ve read this blog for years might remember this earlier post, Also, you’ll find concrete, effective strategies for how to bring up and effectively handle this and other difficult discussions in Navigating Conflict,

4 thoughts on “My Boss is an Alcoholic

  1. I’ve been in this situation myself and it’s tough. I was also the person everyone else turned to in hopes I’d speak to the boss about his alcoholism. I did, and I wasn’t fired, but it also didn’t result in any change. He was deeply in denial about his drinking, claiming he never got drunk. He just “liked to drink”. He drove drunk routinely, he was passed out by mid-afternoon. We hid it from the customers and vendors for years. He was the owner of the company so he wasn’t going to get fired, but we did pretty much force him to retire after a while. He was very fortunate to never have an accident and no one was ever hurt but it was always a concern.

  2. Dealing with an alcoholic boss or even a coworker/peer is tricky, fraught, not easy, subject to backsliding and others pulling away because they fear losing their jobs or they just don’t want to be involved. The strategy to use for speaking to the ED of asking to speak freely and then only mentioning factual behaviors without additional information is good. The person will probably get angry, put the blame on others, try to dismiss it, and so on. It would be good if the organization had a policy on alcohol and drug use and abuse and if they have access to an EAP [Employee Assistance Program] as part of employee benefits. Being a small nonprofit, they probably don’t. How is the Board Director at confrontation? This might be a time for an intervention with several employees and board members rehearsing in advance and then getting together privately with the ED to individually relate the facts of the troubling behaviors and perhaps relate how being exposed to these behaviors make the individual person feel. Are they ready to recommend treatment/rehab? Of course, the ED needs to be willing to go to treatment and to try to make changes. This is not a guaranteed or linear process. Do the board and staff want to try something a little confrontational, a little cagey, like having a mandatory all staff and board training on alcoholism and drug abuse in the workplace and how to handle it? All of these things could crash and burn, failing spectacularly. Maybe engaging the services of a consultant on alcohol and drug abuse in facilitating such a meeting would help. Documentation! It’s important to start memos to self/journals of when the behavior is occurring, what it consists of, any comments of others who are observing the behavior, questions from the board or customers. Maybe even taping photographing some of these episodes would help. Denial is one of the big words in addiction, and the ED no doubt is deep in denial. Good Luck and keep with it!

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