Employers Need to Tread Carefully Around Substance Abuse Issues

Substance abuse can be sticky issue in the workplace. Employers are often leery that an employ’s struggle with addiction, which is classified as a mental illness, will spill over and effect their job performance. But they must tread carefully.

The loss to companies in the United States due to alcohol and drug-related abuse by employees totals $100 billion a year, according to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Naturally, employers want to curtail these costs.

Oftentimes an employer wants to terminate someone because he or she is an alcoholic or addict. But an employer cannot take adverse employment action solely on the employee’s condition. However, if an employee comes to work impaired, an employer can discipline or terminate them, whether or not they have an underlying substance abuse disorder. This includes impairment due to prescription drugs such as Vicodin or other opiates.

Employers must tread carefully if an employee comes to them asking for an accommodation for treatment, particularly if the employer did not previously know of their condition. Employers must work hard to identify and curtail inherent biases, and ensure these do not come into play during employee evaluations, for example. It remains to be seen if the rise in recreational and medical use of marijuana will complicate matters. The bottom line, however, no matter what the substance, is that employers can, carefully, take action if an employee is impaired at work