Employers know they have an important responsibility to maintain a duty of care in the workplace. They also recognize that the workplace and its people accrue many benefits from a drug and alcohol free workplace. The benefits include lower health care expenses, higher productivity, higher quality work performance, safer working conditions, and many others.1 These are all reasons why they care about workplace substance use and why they adhere to random drug and alcohol testing programs. So what should an employer say when exercising that duty of care, discovers a worker has tested positive for methamphetamines, shows the test results to the worker, and is told, “It’s your fault that I use drugs because it is so stressful working here.”
It can be disconcerting when supervisors or managers deal with drugs and alcohol and find themselves with the worker finger pointing right back at them. Employers are human, after all, and have feelings and most truly care about safety, workforce health, and following the law. These types of issues are seldom discussed because emotions are not supposed to have a place in a drug and alcohol enforcement program. However, one of the attributes of many chronic drug and alcohol users is the ability to manipulate because they get practiced at covering up their actions. Since most people really do care about important workplace issues, it creates a perfect scenario for manipulators to turn the tables, go on the offensive, and try to play on the supervisor’s emotions.
Desperate People Saying Desperate Things
Supervisors are constantly warned to not confront employees suspected of being under the influence when alone. They should not announce suspicions or ask co-workers. However, when there is suspicion that substance use is impacting work performance, at some point it is necessary to talk to the employee. Be prepared! It is common for people to consciously or unconsciously try to turn the tables on the supervisor. As the old saying points out: Desperate people do desperate things.
The first step is talking to employees about their poor work performance. That is when the manipulation starts because the worker may get nervous you suspect drug or alcohol use. Sometimes, the drug and alcohol use is apparent and leads to for-cause testing. Sometimes random drug and alcohol testing detects use and the conversation starts with questions about substance abuse. In any case, a conversation usually takes place before any type of disciplinary action is imposed, and that is when it starts – manipulation.
The strategies vary. Supervisors need to be aware of the possible responses and recognize the attempts at self-protection. When work problems are pointed out or it is clear that drugs or alcohol are involved, typical responses include the following:2
I promise it won’t happen again. (apology)
I have so many problems at home and just need some understanding. (excuses)
Why don’t you ever question (co-workers, other department staff, managers) about their behaviour!? They make the same mistakes! (diversion)
You always were against me. (innocence)
I know you understand what it is like working here, and I need help. (sympathy)
It’s your fault I drink! If you ran this department more efficiently and paid us what we are worth, there would not be a need to drink. (anger)
I am so sorry and so upset. I can’t afford to lose my job. Please, please give me one more chance. (tears)
You know I am taking care of my elderly parents and am under a lot of stress. How can you do this to me right now on top of everything else I am dealing with? (pity)
Maintain Control of the Conversation
Workers must not be allowed to divert or take control of the conversation. Some managers and supervisors become enablers by refusing to deal with the substance abuse. Allowing workers to evade the problem will perpetuate substance use in the workplace and send the wrong message to co-workers. One thing that can be assumed in every situation is that most co-workers know about workplace drugs and alcohol long before the supervisors.
CMM Technology at cmm.com.au facilitates the drug and alcohol testing program by offering a variety of supplies. Products include a range of high quality breathalysers, and saliva and urine testing supplies.
1 Commission of Occupational Safety and Health, Western Australia. Guidelines for Addressing Alcohol & Other Drugs in the Workplace. (2006) Reprinted by Government of South Australia. Retrieved from http://www.safework.sa.gov.au/uploaded_files/drugsalc_guidelines.pdf
2 ACCA. (n.d.). Problematic Substance Abuse That Impacts the Workplace. Retrieved from Atlantic Canada Council on Addiction: http://www.gnb.ca/0378/acca/pdf/acca-toolkit-english.pdf