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Human Resources

Bad Habits on Campus

How to deal with staff and faculty who are addicts
University Business, Jul 2008

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE secretary who fell asleep at work, facedown on her computer keyboard? Or maybe you heard about the employee who broke down crying in his manager's office, admitting that he needed help for a problem he had been hiding for months-his addiction to alcohol. 

These are true scenarios that occurred at different universities. More than likely, the human resources department at your school has its own horror stories, considering the prevalence of drug and alcohol addiction in the workplace. A 2007 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( revealed that more than 16 million drug users and an estimated 15 million alcoholics hold full-time jobs.

Managers often lack skills needed to carry on crucial conversations with staff.

Pretty scary stuff. So how should HR go about educating supervisors about how to identify and manage employees with substance abuse problems? Although most higher education institutions support an employee assistance program (EAP), do your managers and supervisors know what to do before EAP steps in? Many do not, opening the door to potential lawsuits, workplace injuries, and declining productivity-not to mention destroying longterm relationships with valued employees that could have been otherwise salvaged. Here are three key actions to take.

Substance abuse policies probably exist on every campus, but employees must know they exist, understand them, and learn how to apply them. Relying on people to read the employee handbook rarely works.

All supervisors working for the Nevada System of Higher Education-which includes the <b>University of Nevada</b>'s <b>Las Vegas and Reno</b> campuses and the <b>College of Southern Nevada</b>-complete a two-hour mandatory workshop on alcohol and drug testing, then take a refresher course every several years, explains Kevin Ingram, a training officer for the state of Nevada's Office of Employee Development, located in Las Vegas. As government employees, he adds, they learn about the state's statutory and regulatory requirements. Everything they must do is clearly spelled out. Very little is left up to their discretion.

The workshop identifies a variety of protocols that managers must observe, ranging from completing drug impairment forms to ensuring that an impaired employee is safely driven home.

Ingram says there are several reasons for such a highly structured approach: It protects schools against lawsuits involving discrimination and minimizes their liability as well as work-related injuries. It also helps ensure that best practices are consistently being applied across the workplace. Any supervisor who ignores these rules may be disciplined or even terminated. Sometimes these practices may even uncover problems that no one suspected.

"If employees are acting erratically, it may not be related to drugs or alcohol," Ingram says. "In some cases, there were issues with other medications prescribed legally, or it was a mental health or medical issue."

Issues of discrimination or retaliation will pop up when supervisors or managers act as unlicensed psychiatrists. "I see supervisors ... smell alcohol and jump to the [wrong] conclusion," says Alan Cohn, a licensed clinical social worker and director of faculty, staff, and employee relations at the <b>University of Virginia</b>. "That's a liability, a legal issue. They're not mental health experts and should not make a diagnosis."

Other mistakes involve ignoring the situation, hoping it will disappear, or covering for employees so they don't lose their jobs. Some supervisors extend project deadlines, actually perform some of an impaired employee's work, or assign easier tasks. But that only enables such employees, pushing them deeper into their addiction.

If managers or supervisors suspect an employee has a substance abuse or alcohol problem, they must focus on the employee's performance deficiencies-and nothing else. Cohn says this is often difficult for department leadership. He believes many people are promoted to managers because they possess solid technical skills and a good understanding of their department. However, they often lack skills needed to carry on crucial conversations with staff and often avoid problems until they reach a crisis point. This is especially true if a manager has developed a friendship with an employee or is intimidated by the employee's belligerent or passive behavior.

At UVA, HR leaders coach managers on the school's policy and how to apply it so they can become better equipped to deal with troubled workers. "We tell managers that at the first sign of performance problems or conduct issues, address them," Cohn says. "If it's awkward or difficult because they know the person, we tell them to set the stage by sharing."

The first conversation might start like this: "Bill, come in. Let's talk about your perspective on how things are going." You might ask about his strengths and contributions, says Cohn, then work your way into performance issues. Demonstrate compassion or concern and offer support, especially if Bill has no past history with drug or alcohol abuse. Ask if there's anything going on in his life to explain why his performance is deteriorating. Cohn says this approach leaves the door open for Bill to start talking about his addiction.

This is also a good time to mention the school's EAP. Position it as a program that helps employees do a better job, adds Eric Goplerud, research professor at <b>The George Washington University</b>'s Department of Health Policy in Washington, D.C. "The focus is on productivity and the ability to be present while they're working. Supervisors can also say that if there are things going on in [the person's] family life or other places that are impacting their ability to stay focused on their job, the EAP is a resource for them."

But sometimes there are not enough EAP resources to go around. At GWU, for instance, he says there is a half-time psychologist who serves as the EAP for the school's 20,000 employees. This is where online screening tools can pitch in, enabling employees to privately assess their situation while encouraging them to seek help.

Some schools also conduct health risk appraisals that include questions such as: Do you drink? How often do you drink? Do you use illegal drugs? Other higher ed institutions rely on pre-employment drug testing. But Goplerud believes these are nothing more than intelligence tests. Job candidates with any common sense simply stop using drugs several days before the drug test, leaving employers in the dark.

Here's a challenge for an HR administrator: Ask several managers or supervisors on the spot what they would do if two staff members told them that their co-worker Joe came to work yesterday morning with the smell of alcohol on his breath. Would they confront Joe? Would they call HR? Or would they simply keep an eye on him?

At <b>Baylor College of Medicine</b> in Houston, managers would request those employees to write a brief report about their observations, says Scott Basinger, associate dean at the college and chair of its substance abuse committee.

"Get corroboration so it doesn't become a 'he said, she said' issue," he says, explaining that documentation protects schools against lawsuits. "Look for two to three reports. What you don't know is if an employee and Joe have some workplace issues going on and this may be that employee's way of getting back at Joe."

Another idea is to implement a "fit for duty" policy that focuses on "if," not "why," employees are impaired, making it easier for managers to take action. Basinger says it's senseless for untrained managers to argue whether someone drank too much alcohol, took too many pills, or is in a diabetic coma. Leave diagnosing up to health care professionals. Managers only need to ask themselves one crucial question: Can the employee still perform the job?

"Every single institution with more than one employee should have a strong substance abuse policy," says Basinger, adding that problem employees should also be required to attend a six- or 12-month after-care management program. "Most managers don't get the training they need, do significant enabling, and would love the help of a clear-cut policy-here's what you look for and here's whom you call."

While drug and alcohol policies at universities and colleges run the gamut from progressive discipline to immediate dismissal, they're only effective if observed. So maybe it's time to give a pop quiz to your supervisors and managers. Their responses will either validate HR's effective training and communication efforts or send HR back to the drawing board.

<em>Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.</em>