When the use or abuse of alcohol or drugs interferes with the employee’s ability to perform his/her job duties, the employer does have legitimate concerns, including the proper performance of duties, health and safety issues, and employee conduct at the workplace.

As a manager, you have an important role in dealing with substance abuse problems in the workplace. You have the day-to-day responsibility to monitor the work and on-the-job conduct of your employees – but you are not responsible for diagnosing alcoholism or drug problems in employees.

At some point, you may encounter employees with alcohol- or drug-related problems in relation to performance, conduct, and leave issues. In some cases, you may not know if a substance is the problem. In other cases, the employee may admit to being an alcoholic, or the problem is self-evident. For example, an employee may become intoxicated while on duty or be arrested for drunk driving. Again, your role is not to diagnose the alcohol/drug problem but to deal with the performance or conduct problem at it relates to the employee’s position and refer the employee to USC’s Employee Assistance Program through the WorkWell Center.

From a management perspective, substance abuse may affect the employee’s ability to meet professional expectations including the ability to:

  • Attend work punctually and regularly
  • Perform assigned duties competently and fully capacitated
  • Perform assigned duties in a healthy, safe, and conscientious manner
  • Collaborate with co-workers and/or customers in a collegial fashion
  • Conduct oneself in a civil and socially-appropriate manner

Recognizing the complexity of situations when concerns over substance abuse arise, managers must understand how and when they should intervene.

When substance abuse is suspected

Drug or alcohol dependency is sometimes recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), particularly when the abused substance is legal, such as alcohol, or when the employee is no longer using illegal substances. While an employee is always responsible for adequately performing the essential functions of his/her position and must adhere to appropriate conduct standards, an employee may be entitled to reasonable accommodations to help him/her meet those expectations. Examples of reasonable accommodations might include modifying employees’ work schedules so that they can attend appointments that help maintain their sobriety, or ensuring a private place where an employee could telephone a sponsor.

Signs to look for

Even though it’s not your job to diagnose the problem, there are many signs that may indicate a problem that should trigger a referral to the WorkWell Center’s Employee Assistance Program, including:

Changes in performance

  • Frequent or patterned absences or tardiness (e.g., Mondays and Fridays, or immediately after payday)
  • Reduced job efficiency
  • Lowered productivity
  • Erratic or impulsive behavior
  • Poor judgment
  • Frequent accidents on the job
  • Mood swings, anger, argumentative behavior
  • Defensiveness
  • Frequent unplanned absences due to “emergencies” (e.g., household repairs, car trouble, legal problems)
  • Excessive use of sick leave
  • Complaints from co-workers or customers
  • Missed deadlines
  • Careless or sloppy work or incomplete assignments
  • Excuses for missed deadlines

Changes in behavior

  • Smell of alcohol
  • Lack of coordination, staggering
  • Appearing confused or forgetful
  • Excessive use of mouthwash or breath mints
  • Falling asleep while on duty
  • Erratic or impulsive
  • Poor judgment
  • Slow or exaggerated movements
  • Inattentive/drowsy
  • Disheveled
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Restless/agitated
  • Incoherent, low or rambling speech
  • Profane, excessively loud, or hostile speech
  • Glassy eyes or blank stare
  • Strained relationships with co-workers
  • Belligerent, argumentative, or short-tempered, especially in the mornings or after weekends or holidays
  • Becoming a “loner”

If you are concerned about possible intoxication on the job, consult with your HR Partner and the WorkWell Center regarding your response. If the possible intoxication presents an immediate safety risk (e.g., the employee is about to operate a motorized vehicle or is acting in a manner that frightening colleagues), it is appropriate to contact DPS. Note that you must document all conduct problems related to substance abuse the way any conduct problem would be documented.


Many of us have heard the term used to describe the behavior of a spouse or family member in situations of alcohol or drug abuse. It is also possible for managers to enable, despite their best intentions. Enabling is any behavior which allows another to avoid or escape the natural and logical consequences of his/her behavior, or to avoid taking responsibility for, or being held accountable for, behavior.

Examples of workplace enabling

  • Transferring the employee to another department
  • Sending the employee home “sick”
  • Reducing the employee’s workload or performance standards
  • Covering up for poor performance
  • Failing to administer appropriate discipline, based on performance issues or conduct
  • Arguing, demanding, criticizing and other nonconstructive behavior
  • Attempting to help the employee by being a “friend”

As a manager, focus on your employee’s job performance and work-relevant behaviors. Hold him/her accountable for meeting the appropriate work expectations. You can offer a referral to the WorkWell Center’s Employee Assistance Program for help with “whatever personal issues may be causing these problems,” but you can’t solve their problems or resolve their issues yourself.

When to refer to the Employee Assistance Program

When performance and conduct problems are coupled with signs that substance abuse may be an issue, you must refer the employee to the Employee Assistance Program. (This does not mean, however, that the employee is an alcoholic or drug addicted. It simply means that signs point to the need for help.) WorkWell Center staff will assess the employee to determine what kind of help is needed.

As you talk with an employee who is demonstrating work performance issues that may or may not be due to substance abuse, consider:

  • Work performance problems can stem from other sources besides abuse of drugs and alcohol. Do not diagnose or make assumptions.
  • Be cautious about making personal judgments about the employee’s situation. Keep your discussion focused on job performance issues.
  • Don’t let sympathy for the employee’s problems mislead you. Be aware that some people may try to manipulate your relationship to avoid dealing with their performance concerns.
  • Misguided “kindness” can delay real help reaching the employee. Don’t cover up for a friend or buddy.
  • Follow these guidelines – don’t make exceptions or play favorites.
  • Take action. Delayed action can threaten the safety of others and result in the deterioration of the abuser.
  • Remember that many behavioral problems seldom “go away” without professional help.
  • Point out to the employee that the Employee Assistance Program is an employee benefit program, and that confidential help is available for a wide range of problems.
  • Make clear to the employee that you are concerned with his/her health and welfare as well as job performance.
  • Explain that the decision to seek help rests with the employee.
  • Provide follow up, and support the employee.
  • Continue to document any substandard work performance, note the date of referral to the Employee Assistance Program, and note any improved work performance.

Management consultation

Dealing with an employee with a substance abuse problem is never easy. Remember that WorkWell Center staff is always available to help you determine whether or not a problem exists, and suggest ways to handle it. The WorkWell Center is a resource for you as well as your employees.

Other resources

USC Drug-Free policy
The university’s policy includes more helpful resources.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.) also known as Save Our Selves is dedicated to providing a path to sobriety, an alternative to those paths depending upon supernatural or religious beliefs. We respect diversity, welcome healthy skepticism, and encourage rational thinking as well as the expression of feelings.

Women for Sobriety is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women overcome alcoholism and other addictions. Their “New Life” program helps achieve sobriety and sustain ongoing recovery.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Workplace Resource Center