What to Do About an Employee With a Substance Abuse Problem

February 28, 2018
What to Do About an Employee With a Substance Abuse Problem

Seventy percent of Americans who use illegal drugs are employed, and drug abuse costs their employers an estimated $81 billion a year, according to a report by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Smaller businesses may bear the greater part of this burden because: 

  • Many small businesses don’t have the resources to drug-screen prospective employees.
  • Small businesses are more vulnerable to the higher costs of health insurance, workers’ compensation claims and lawsuits that may arise from drug- or alcohol-related employee negligence.
  • An employee whose performance is impaired by substance abuse can cause a bigger ripple effect in a smaller personnel pool, taking a more significant slice out of company productivity. 

Add to this that one in 10 small businesses reportedly has experienced employees showing up to work under the influence of at least one controlled substance. This dreaded scenario and the potential liability it can cause is, therefore, a real issue for the small business community. 

On that note, here are some suggestions for successfully dealing with an employee who has a substance abuse problem: 

Refer to and follow your company policy

Your company should have a written drug-free workplace policy that the employee signed when they took the job. If you don’t have any such policy, consult the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) guide to creating and maintaining a drug-free workplace. Your HR services provider can also help craft a written policy. Your policy should: 

  • Clearly state the company’s expectations for appropriate behavior
  • Reiterate the company’s commitment to workplace safety, and a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs and being under the influence in the workplace
  • Explain company procedure for handling employee substance abuse issues, including how your company will respond to claims of potential substance abuse in the workplace, the investigative process, and that your company will respond appropriately based on the results of any investigation
  • Refer to treatment and assistance resources, both internal and external (more below)
  • Align with federal, state, and local laws and regulations

Know your legal rights and responsibilities as an employer

Certain federal statutes, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, may entitle an employee with a substance abuse problem to up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for treatment. You need to be aware of these provisions as they apply to your company. Your legal rights and responsibilities as an employer can also vary depending on where your employees work. For example, some states restrict an employer’s right to drug test employees suspected of drug or alcohol abuse while other states do not have any restrictions. 

Consult a professional

An employment attorney or HR professional can help you navigate these issues both generally and as they relate to an employee’s substance abuse problem. You should involve your attorney or HR staff as soon as you suspect that one of your employees is abusing substances or is coming to work under the influence. 

Gather a list of treatment referrals

Your company’s health insurance provider may have a preferred network of substance abuse treatment providers. You may also wish to explore insurance coverage options to which you can refer the employee. 

Remember, there is only so much you can do to support an employee with a substance abuse problem. Ultimately, your first priority must be to ensure a safe and productive work environment for all of your employees. Fortunately, responding to an employee’s substance abuse problem with both compassion and professionalism can also be what’s best for business. 

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

This post may contain hyperlinks to websites operated by parties other than TriNet. Such hyperlinks are provided for reference only. TriNet does not control such websites and is not responsible for their content. Inclusion of such hyperlinks on does not necessarily imply any endorsement of the material on such websites or association with their operators.

The opinions and views expressed by guest authors of the TriNet blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of TriNet or any of its affiliates or partners.  

Anna Ciulla

Anna Ciulla

Anna Ciulla is vice president of clinical and medical services at Beach House Center for Recovery, where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.  

Additional Articles
ESAC Accreditation
We comply with all ESAC standards and maintain ESAC accreditation since 1995.
Certified PEO
A TriNet subsidiary is classified as a Certified Professional Employer Organization by the IRS.5.