Addicts and alcoholics hurt many people. Family, friends, themselves. At least, these are the three we see discussed most often. But there is at least one other person often hurt or betrayed by the actions of an addict or alcoholic. And in some cases, this individual’s well-being may at least partially depend on the addict’s ability to achieve and maintain sobriety. We’re talking, of course, about the addict’s boss. Owners, managers, supervisors, you name it—bosses on just about every level will deal with at least one addict or alcoholic employee at some point or another. Chapter 10 of Alcoholics Anonymous (“To Employers”) provides some advice for dealing with such encounters.
It’s worth noting that “To Employers” was actually written by an alcoholic with experience on both sides of the issue. Not only did the author drink during their own career, but they later employed recovering alcoholics at their own business. This provides us with a voice that relays intimate knowledge regarding the relationship between employers and alcoholic workers. The author knows when a boss needs to help and when they need to throw in the towel. Anyone managing an addict or alcoholic on their staff might find these sections of “To Employers” to be especially helpful.
Below, we’ll cover three broad subjects from “To Employers” while assessing a few passages from the chapter itself. Employers currently struggling to handle a substance abusing employee might want to read the chapter in full. But those just looking to gain an overview of this chapter from the Big Book should find what they need here. Remember, however, that “To Employers” covers broad issues as they might apply to the typical workplace. Depending upon your particular place of business and the regulations observed therein, your mileage may vary when it comes to some of the advice presented below.
Understanding the Addicted Employee
The author of “To Employers” begins by recalling three tragic stories. Each revolves around a former employee whose life was lost to alcoholism. The author notes that these losses might have been avoided if he knew more about the disease prior to becoming alcoholic himself. He notes that most employers feel a sense of responsibility to their subordinates. Even those that don’t truly care for their employees still recognize that happy and healthy workers will do much more to keep the business afloat. Simply put, employers can’t afford to let alcoholism and addiction hurt their enterprise.
Before employers can combat alcoholism and addiction in the workplace, they must first understand the disease. “To Employers” notes that this will prove difficult for some:
“Whether you are a hard drinker, a moderate drinker or a teetotaler, you may have some pretty strong opinions, perhaps prejudices. Those who drink moderately may be more annoyed with an alcoholic than a total abstainer would be. Drinking occasionally, and understanding your own reactions, it is possible for you to become quite sure of many things which, so far as the alcoholic is concerned, are not always so. As a moderate drinker, you can take your liquor or leave it alone. Whenever you want to, you control your drinking. Of an evening, you can go on a mild bender, get up in the morning, shake your head and go to business. To you, liquor is no real problem. You cannot see why it should be to anyone else, save the spineless and stupid.”
For those who struggle to understand the disease, “To Employers” suggests reading Chapter 2 (“There Is A Solution”) and Chapter 3 (“More About Alcoholism”) of the Big Book. See if any of the behaviors mentioned in those chapters appear to describe the employee in question. If they do, then you just might have an addict or alcoholic on your hands. At this point, you must decide what to do next.
“To Employers” notes that this will not be an easy decision. Not all employers are qualified to diagnose alcoholism and addiction. It’s also difficult to tell whether or not the afflicted employee will want to change his or her ways. If the employee in question has been on staff for a long time, you should know them well enough to determine whether or not they sincerely wish to recover. Once you are convinced of their honesty, you can begin plotting a course of action.
How to Help You Addicted Employee
When it comes to helping addicts and alcoholics, the specifics often depend on the person in question. As such, the Big Book keeps its advice somewhat general. Much of the advice that appears in “To Employers” is therefore similar to the advice in Chapter 8 (“To Wives”). For instance, employers should begin by talking to their addicted employee and asking if they want help. Make it clear that the employee is appreciated, but that their behavior can no longer be tolerated. If they continue upon this path, they will be out of a job. While setting this boundary, try not to go into a moral lecture. You may be in a position of authority, but it’s best right now if you sound like a friend.
In “To Wives,” the next step would be to provide the addict or alcoholic with a copy of the Big Book. “To Employers” leaves this decision up to the reader:
“Whether you mention this book is a matter for your discretion. If he temporizes and still thinks he can ever drink again, even beer, he might as well be discharged after the next bender which, if an alcoholic, he is almost certain to have. He should understand that emphatically. Either you are dealing with a man who can and will get well or you are not. If not, why waste time with him? This may seem severe, but it is usually the best course.”
Those who do choose to offer a copy of the book must still plan a course of action after the initial conversation is over. Perhaps you might suggest that your employee complete a treatment program before returning to work. Some employers might also prefer their employee to spend a few months in a sober living facility afterward. We see many patients in our programs who are there to keep their jobs, and many spend time in our sober living facilities. Many are there because they are fortunate enough to work for bosses who truly care about them. But “To Employers” also notes that maintaining the health of valued employees is simply good business. And when it comes to addiction, there’s little you can do for your employee other than ensuring they get professional help.
If you choose such a course of action, make an agreement with your employee for the treatment center or sober living facility to provide progress updates. Employees who get kicked out of treatment or leave against recommendations might not be worth hiring back. Fortunately, virtuous employees who care about their recovery will not put you through this. As for the less virtuous employees, “To Employers” speaks rather bluntly in detailing the best course of action.
When to Fire Your Addicted Employee
Bosses who spend time and possibly even money to help their employee achieve sobriety will not be too pleased to see their efforts made vain by continued drinking or drug abuse. In some cases, their frustrations will bear similarities to the emotional woes of friends and family who watched a loved one relapse. After all, many businesses pride themselves on the sense of community that pervades their halls. Losing an employee is, in many ways, like losing a family member. On top of that, business owners make very tangible investments when choosing who to hire. Unfortunately, even those with families who depend on their next paycheck will sometimes fail to stay sober. At this point, “To Employers” notes that bosses must make a difficult decision:
“In case he does stumble, even once, you will have to decide whether to let him go. If you are sure he doesn’t mean business, there is no doubt you should discharge him. If, on the contrary, you are sure he is doing his utmost, you may wish to give him another chance. But you should feel under no obligation to keep him on, for your obligation has been well discharged already.”
Perhaps this advice sounds harsh, but it’s actually quite reasonable. Rarely can an addict or alcoholic recover solely because their boss hands them an ultimatum. A person must want sobriety for themselves, or—more often than not—their recovery will fail. If your employee doesn’t want to get sober, “To Employers” suggests that you put your company first. Trying to force an unwilling prospect into sobriety is little more than a waste of time. The sooner employers learn this, the better. It may be an unfortunate truth, but it’s a truth that the bosses of addicts and alcoholics often learn the hard way.
“To Employers” makes one note, however, that might be of use to those who feel hesitant to let their employee go. In many cases, employees offered a second chance will work with great energy. Trying to make up for their past, they work more dutifully than ever before. And without drugs or alcohol to slow them down, they often work with wonderful efficiency. If you find yourself with an employee such as this, you might not need to fear relapse. Yes, they might still stumble at one point or another. If, however, they continue to demonstrate a strong work ethic and a desire to do right by the company, you might not need to let them go. For these are the signs of someone who truly wants to be better.
Every business should be so lucky to have even one employee who allows their spirituality to guide their work ethic. “To Employers” gives you the tools to ensure that you may find such an employee in your own place of business. All you have to do is extend your hand when you see that it is needed. If they want your help, then the two of you just might accomplish great things together. But if they don’t want any help at all, you might just have to hope that losing their job will be the wake-up call they need. Because without their willing cooperation, there’s unfortunately little that you’ll be able to do. Such is the nature of this crippling and terrible disease.