Substance Abuse in the Workplace Part 3 – How to Deal With Substance Abuse

We will now deal with how to deal with substance abuse since we have laid the foundation of the seriousness of the problem and the laws and regulations regarding the issue.

The most important start in dealing with substance abuse is to ensure that the workforce culture encourages sobriety by recommending addiction hotline and detox centers.  Having a written Drug and Alcohol Policy and conducting annual training sessions for all employees is critical to establishing a drug and alcohol free culture.  In addition, conducting in-depth training for supervisors on how to spot abusers and deal with them is vitally important.
When there is a policy with consequences clearly spelled out, it is important to follow through with those who violate the policy.  Mandatory participation in a substance abuse program, suspension, or termination must be appropriately and consistently applied in order to keep the sober culture credible.

Types of Tests

One of the best ways of delivering the message of a sober culture early is to conduct pre-employment drug and alcohol screening for all employees.  There are several other types of tests that should be used in order to keep the problem minimized.

  • Reasonable Suspicion – given when there are indications that the employee is under the influence.
  • Post Accident – given to determine if substance abuse was the cause of an accident.
  • Return to Duty – given to confirm employees who have been suspended for substance abuse can safely return to their jobs.
  • Random – given randomly and without notice to ensure employees are not violating the D&A policy.
Now testing is not perfect and there are ways to game the tests but the testing can help create and maintain the culture of a sober workplace.
What to Look For
Knowing that tests can be gamed, the most effective way of identifying substance abuse is by observing behavior.  Each type of substance produces a distinct type of behavior.
  • Depressants – alcohol, marijuana and tranquilizers slow a person down and make them sluggish.
  • Stimulants – meth, cocaine, and crack speed a person up and cause a person to be active and unusually hyper.
  • Narcotic Analgesics – morphine, heroin, and Oxycontin make a person numb and unable to feel pain.
  • Hallucinogens – LSD and certain mushrooms make a person see and hear things that don’t exist.

Drug and alcohol use usually causes extreme mood swings of being very energetic, angry, or depressed.  If an employee is behaving noticeably strange,  look for other signs of substance abuse such as alcohol hidden in beverages, the smell of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, bloodshot eyes, etc.

Symptoms and statistics sourced:

What to Do

First of all, don’t immediately jump to conclusions if you witness unusual and abnormal behavior.  It could be a number of other things that are causing the behavior that have nothing to do with substance abuse.  If you suspect substance abuse, document your observations of the employee to try to determine a pattern. Never accuse an employee or try to diagnose their problem. Focus on their work performance and document facts, not opinion.  For example, don’t document they were drunk, instead document that alcohol was smelled on their breath.  If the employee’s behavior is affecting the their safety or the safety of others, immediately
remove them from the workplace based on their violating safety practices.



It may take several weeks before a pattern of poor performance is established and an employee should be confronted.  When that time comes, bring the employee in and discuss their poor performance and documented observations and what they think is contributing to it.  Tell the employee the company is here to help them and offer them the company EAP.  Make sure the employee understands that the company wants to help them with their problem, not get rid of them.

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