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Dealing with a Drug-Addicted Employee: Dismissal or Treatment?

With drug addiction rates continuing to rise—especially for prescription drugs—employers are increasingly dealing with substance-abusing employees. Statistics* indicate approximately 70 percent of drug abusers are employed—some 10 million people. Traditionally, many companies have dismissed personnel who exhibited signs of substance abuse, especially if it happened on the job. Now, the problem has become so rampant—even among trusted personnel at the highest level—that many employers are asking themselves, “Should I dismiss people with substance abuse problems, or try to work with them to resolve them?”

Articles about working with addicted personnel abound, so we won’t discuss that issue. (One good resource is posted here). Rather, our focus is on weighing the value of disciplinary action. In our view, this decision comes down to five key questions:

  1. Is the employee enthusiastic about seeking treatment? Beating addiction is tough, and employees who are seriously committed to ending the problem are far more likely to succeed. Even if an addiction was inadvertent, an employee who refuses to acknowledge the problem or embrace recovery presents an unreasonable risk.
  2. Was the addiction to a legal drug? If someone has accidentally become addicted to prescription drugs, such as painkillers, but is otherwise a valued employee, it can make sense to work with them while they seek treatment. If they engaged in illegal behavior, especially at or before work, employers have the legal right to terminate them—and may be risking both their personnel and their company if they do not.
  3. Was the addiction an outgrowth of a detrimental event, such as the death of a loved one or a workplace injury? In the event of a traumatic or debilitating life event, some employers offer more leniency, assuming the employee is viable in other ways.
  4. Does the worker have an excellent job record, overall? Some of the most passionate, driven workers become addicted to drugs (or alcohol). If they are an overall positive to the firm and meet other criteria, they may be a candidate for rehabilitation.
  5. Is the individual a “high value” employee? While we don’t advocate automatically giving anyone “a pass” based on a job title, skill level or other attribute, some personnel are particularly valuable to a firm. Examples include those who with extensive, specialized training and those that have an exceptional level of knowledge and competence due to their tenure on the job. Provided these employees want to become healthy, it may be more cost effective to keep them. The reverse of this argument is that substance abusers working in positions of trust may represent too great of a liability to let them stay.

* The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

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