What to Do When Accused of Drinking Alcohol at Work

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accused of drinking alcohol at work

Times have certainly changed, and for the better. For decades it was considered the norm for executives to imbibe in the office. Many offices even had dedicated liquor cabinets, featuring ornate decanters filled with Scotch whiskey and hi-ball glasses at the ready. Alcohol was considered a kind of social tool, helping executives navigate their business meetings or negotiate deals. These days, however, if someone does decide to drink in the workplace it is usually on the down low, as substance use is now strictly prohibited at work.

When accused of drinking alcohol at work (or even being accused of taking drugs at work), either by a colleague or management, it can present a serious risk to job security. Substance abuse is not to be tolerated in modern work cultures that now focus more on employee wellness. A higher level of consciousness exists regarding substance use disorders and the negative consequences they present in the workplace and beyond.

Employee handbooks always include a section in which substance use on the job is clearly prohibited, usually under penalty of termination. So, what does one do when accused of drinking alcohol at work? Deny it? Submit to alcohol testing? Confess and plead for a second chance? And what if the accusation is patently false?

To be sure, employers have some very valid reasons for disallowing substance use on the job. Alcohol abuse can lead to sexual harassment, violent altercations, workplace injuries, property damage, and negative workplace morale. Alcohol abuse costs American industry over $165 billion each year. That said, there are federal protections in place to prevent workers from being discriminated against or terminated when they decide to seek treatment. The law does not, however, grant those protections for alcohol abuse in the workplace.

Signs of Alcohol Use at Work

According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), which studied the use of drugs and alcohol at work, 24% of workers surveyed admit having used alcohol during the workday at least once in the past year, and when breathalyzer tests were conducted in work injury situations, alcohol was detected in 16% of these employees. NCADD states that marijuana and cocaine were the most commonly used drugs by employees.

When a coworker is struggling with an alcohol use disorder there will usually be some red flags. It is not easy to hide the telltale signs of an alcohol problem from the people you work alongside each day. Signs of a coworker or employee’s alcohol use disorder may include:

  • Declining job performance
  • Being consistently late to work
  • Excessive absenteeism
  • Missing important meetings
  • Becoming less social at work
  • Hand tremors
  • Neglecting appearance and personal hygiene
  • Avoiding work related social functions 
  • Facial bloating
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Mood swings or moodiness

Coworkers who exhibit a cluster of these signs or symptoms are in need of help. An employee who enters treatment for a behavioral health disorder cannot be terminated for going to rehab, and should be encouraged to get the help they need. The exception to this is when the employee is drinking on the job.

Employers Right to Terminate Employee for Alcohol Use at Work

Alcohol abuse can have substantial negative effects on the workplace culture. If the employee has engaged in active drinking alcohol at work, the employer can terminate them based on the “employee at will” clause. Also, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  

Regardless of whether an employee has been in treatment for an alcohol problem or not, the employer has the right to expect all employees to meet the defined standards of the job.  If workplace performance is subpar or there are excessive absences, or any other reasons that justify termination, that employer is within their rights to terminate employment.

Some examples of how alcohol abuse impacts the workplace include:

  • Potential injury at work leading to expensive worker’s compensation claims and increases in premiums
  • Sexual harassment, abuse or assault
  • Aggravated assault
  • Distribution or sales of illicit drugs or alcohol at work
  • Reduced productivity or quality of work
  • Psychological effects of substance abuse impacting coworkers
  • Reduced morale among staff
  • Cost of having to train a replacement when termination results

The cost to the employer and the workplace is substantial when a coworker is engaging in alcohol abuse either secretly while at work, or arriving to work drunk or hung over.

When Falsely Accused of Alcohol Use at Work

When a coworker is slurring their speech or walking with an unsteady gait it may be easy to jump to the conclusion that he or she is inebriated. However, employees need to exercise some restraint when accusing someone of drinking at work. It may be that this employee has been recently prescribed medication for a health condition that has caused these side effects, such as muscle relaxants or antidepressants. Also, some medical conditions can cause symptoms of intoxication, such as diabetic ketoacidosis. 

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When the situation is handled properly, a management figure can simply state their concern about the slurred speech or unsteady gait, asking the employee if they are okay. This provides an opportunity for the employee to explain the adverse reaction to a new medication or a medical condition such as diabetes causing the symptoms. 

Management must tread carefully when addressing an employee and never accuse them outright unless the employee smells of alcohol or was seen actually drinking on the job. When falsely accused of alcohol use at work, such as if a vindictive coworker lied about it, there may be cause for legal action if the accusation has resulted in damage to one’s reputation, termination, or a stalled career. 

Federal Labor Laws that Protect Employees

When an employee knows they have an alcohol problem, they may resist getting treatment out of fear being terminated and the subsequent loss of income, or just the damage to their professional reputation. However, there are laws in place that protect individuals with a disability, such as a substance use disorder, from losing their jobs. These protections are found in both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the FMLA.

drinking alcohol at work lawThe ADA lists mental health disorders and substance use disorders among the disabilities protected under the law. In essence, the ADA protects the employee from being terminated for receiving treatment for a substance use disorder.

Under the FMLA, individuals with a medical need to receive an extended leave of absence, including a serious health condition such as an alcohol use disorder, can be granted up to 12 weeks of paid or unpaid leave without the risk of losing his or her job. This means that after the 12-week leave, the former position, or a comparable one, with the same benefits and pay will be guaranteed.

Getting Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol addiction is a serious condition can have profound consequences in someone’s life. Alcoholism impacts not only career, but also hurts physical health, mental health, family life, and relationships. Left untreated, alcoholism is a progressive and often fatal disease. Individuals who have developed an alcohol use disorder should consider detox and rehab as the appropriate course of action. 

When initiating the treatment process, the first step will be completion of detox and withdrawal. A medically monitored detox program will assist the individual with medications and other interventions to help guide them through the alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and safely transition them to treatment.

Both outpatient and residential rehabs include assorted treatment interventions that are designed to provide a comprehensive approach for treating alcoholism. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two evidence-based approaches that are highly effective in shifting dysfunctional thought patterns. Recovery skills, such as relapse prevention strategies, stress management, communication skills, and conflict resolution, are also a fundamental aspect of improving psychosocial functioning in recovery. Peer support is provided through group therapy sessions and recovery meetings, such as 12-step or similar. Finally, holistic activities that promote relaxation are often included in alcohol recovery, as stress is a significant trigger for relapse.

Relapse Prevention After Rehab

To further solidify recovery after rehab, a relapse prevention plan should be in place. When creating the plan, the first step is to identify specific triggers and determine in advance how to manage them. Early recovery is a vulnerable period when the newly sober individual is prone to stages of relapse. Relapse prevention planning needs to take an honest view of where the vulnerabilities are and what actions will be taken when recovery is threatened. The more detailed the relapse prevention plan is, the more effective it will be when needed.

Some essential relapse prevention actions include:

  • Sober living housing
  • Continuing outpatient psychotherapy
  • Engaging in support groups
  • Attending 12-step or similar recovery meetings
  • Setting fitness goals
  • Limiting fast food, sugary treats, processed foods, and caffeine
  • Cultivating sober friendships and engaging in sober activities

For someone who was accused of drinking alcohol at work, a legitimate accusation, it could present an opportunity to finally address the alcohol problem and get the help they need.

Solutions 4 Recovery Provides Integrated Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Solutions 4 Recovery is a multidisciplinary addiction treatment program located in Orange County, California. As a leader in the addiction recovery field, Solutions 4 Recovery carves out its own identity by offering a fully customized approach to treating alcohol use disorder, tailored to specifically address each individual’s unique recovery needs. If you have been rightly accused of drinking alcohol at work, allow the expert clinical team at Solutions 4 Recovery to assist you in overcoming an alcohol use disorder. Call us today for more information at (888) 417-1874.