Drugging on the Job: The Continued Denial of Workplace Addiction

By Kristen McGuiness 05/16/17

Employers who suspect someone of using drugs on the job may be reluctant to intervene because they fear they'll be charged with discrimination.

business man drinking and taking pills at work
Personal stories of drug misuse while on the job

On Jason’s first day of work at an old-fashioned Wall Street law firm, he was so high on cocaine and heroin that his mother warned him, “You can’t go in there. You don’t look well.”

But as Jason, now nearly ten years sober and with the easy confidence of a successful lawyer, explains, “I was determined to show up, though I should have never been anywhere near an office, let alone the orientation for summer associates. But the way it works, when you get a summer associate gig, you’re bound to get an offer at the end of it and then you start with that firm after you take the Bar. So I went anyway.”

Despite the fact that Jason was asking inappropriate questions about sexual harassment to the HR person on his first day, he still managed to work the whole summer at the firm. “I was doing coke and a lot of pills, I was snorting heroin, and basically getting paid $3,000 a week to do nothing. They never said anything about my behavior; they just didn’t give me any work to do. It was the weirdest experience.”

But Jason isn’t alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 76 percent of people with drug or alcohol problems are employed, and about 19.2 million U.S. workers (15%) reported using or being impaired by alcohol at work at least once in the past year. Despite these statistics, addiction in the workplace is as much a tricky beast for the employer as it is for the addict.

As Dana Wilkie, online editor/manager for the Society for Human Resource Management, explains, there is a fine line between calling out an employee’s behavior and becoming a liability yourself. She shares: “There are tell-tale signs, which a manager should observe and document: slurred speech, an odor of alcohol, an accident that appears to have been caused by substance abuse, impaired mobility or the discovery of empty bottles of alcohol in the employee's desk drawer.”

“However, it’s important that a manager never make accusations about drinking without proof,” she continues. “This can be slanderous and open a company to liability. It could be the worker has an illness or is on legal medication that may make them appear inebriated, when actually they’re not.” 

Addiction expert and executive director of Alternatives Behavioral Health, Dr. Adi Jaffe concurs, “Accusing someone of being high on the job can cause severe liability, opening the employer up to charges of discrimination. Most employers would approach that with a healthy dose of care and attention in case it might not be true. And the signs [of addiction] aren’t always easy to recognize.”

Jason was never accused of drinking or drugging on the job, even as he moved from one law firm to the next, always being fired for negligence but never questioned for his behaviors. “By my third firm, I had gotten physically addicted to heroin and I would go downstairs and score from this dealer who would come down from the Bronx every day. I would sit in my office with the door closed, which was really weird for a Junior Associate, and get fucked up. And then I would stay there all night, smoking and doing drugs. One time I even had sex with a co-worker, and the guy in the office next to me, this really nice, good guy, was so confused, but no one said anything.”

During Jason’s time at the firm, he finally sought treatment after an intervention, going to Betty Ford for a month. “I lied to my firm, and I told them that I was sick, that I had pneumonia, and made up this complicated story. They fired me as soon as I got back.”

As Dana explains, there are some cultures where drinking was historically thought of acceptable, “In the Mad Men days of three-martini lunches, it seemed acceptable for white-collar professionals to imbibe during day-time hours in the course of wooing clients or cementing ties with colleagues. There may be some residual acceptance of that behavior today among white-collar professionals. However, while a glass of white wine at lunch is one thing, returning to work befuddled and unable to adequately perform is another—especially if that happens with regularity.”

For Sarah, however, it seemed that she couldn’t get herself fired no matter what she did. “In fact,” she can’t help but laugh, “They just kept promoting me.” Sarah was in charge of sales at a software company during the first tech boom (and in charge of wooing clients at lunch). The clients loved her, even if by the end of her workday she would find herself slurring her speech or foaming at the mouth. “It was an unfortunate side effect of the opiates,” she explains.

As Sarah’s using got worse, even leading her to have Vicodin shipped to the office from illegal online pharmacies, no one seemed to notice. “I remember one morning being so sick, and I was taking all these pills, and putting Vodka in my coffee, and my boss called me in, and I was sure that was it, I was getting fired. But instead she told me they were promoting me to director, and I was going to get this raise and bonus and all these stock options. I almost vomited on her desk.”

According to Dr. Jaffe, for many executives it is normal and even expected to drink on the job, particularly if their drinking helps them to close deals or bolsters their performance: “There are positions, both in terms of the hierarchy and the type of industry, where alcohol consumption is an accepted and expected part of the job. Many executives tell me they do better, and they know their bosses appreciate that they can deliver, when they’re drinking with their decision maker until two in the morning.”

The day Sarah finally admitted to her boss what was going on, her boss was shocked. She thought Sarah was just overworked. Sarah went to the hospital that morning after her work meeting only to find out that she had a blood alcohol level of .37. “I could have died,” Sarah shares. “Instead, I had been working since 6:00am that morning.”

As Dr. Jaffe explains, working in a small company like Sarah's can add another conflict: “If you have a large company with a large HR department, they can make some suggestions without interfering with the chain of command. But in many smaller companies, the people who are most aware of what’s going on and who are tasked with intervening are the addict’s colleagues or supervisors, and it can be a very difficult and tenuous conversation if you don’t have immediate evidence that something happened.”

Unlike Jason, Sarah didn’t lose her job. Instead, her company sent her to rehab and helped to pay for her sober living. “They were really behind me as an employer, and as my friend,” Sarah recalls. Now, with nearly eight years of sobriety, Sarah has continued to grow with the company. “A lot of people have left so though I am sure HR knows about what happened. Most of the people I work with don’t. I’ve continued to be promoted, only now, I’m not nodding off during the announcements.”

For many, this greater awareness amongst employers has been the difference between life and death. As Dana offers, “I think there’s been an increase in awareness in past decades about all types of addiction—including alcoholism—that has helped companies understand that these addictions are diseases, and they’re to be treated like any other disease—without stigma or judgment.”

Unfortunately, not all industries have changed with the times. Paul was two years clean off of street drugs when he got hired by the FAA to be an air traffic controller. “I passed their interviews and psych evaluations because of the degree of safety and technical needs of the job. But I was still using pain pills. I mean technically, it was all legal. I had prescriptions, but of course, I was doctor shopping.”

For Paul, the stress of his job only led to more anxiety, which he felt the need to self-medicate. “I never used on the job once I walked in the door, but I often worked with a drug hangover, and always with my pills in my pocket, obsessing about them the whole time I was controlling airplanes. Though I had a lot of anxiety while at work, I always kept the planes separated per the minimums. And over time, I got to be a better controller. I just looked at my addiction as having an extra handicap, which meant I needed to be hyper aware of what I was doing in such a complex, critical job.”

After a rash of reported dirty drug tests in the aviation industry in the 1980s, then President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to create an employee drug-testing program. Today, drug screening is done for most occupations related to the transport and aviation industry, from mechanics to baggage handlers, and employees are screened prior to employment and then at random on the job.

As Dr. Jaffe explains, this is far easier to do at a public agency then with a private employer: “Public agencies operate by the SAMSHA guidelines, and can drug test for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and opiates. Obviously though, this gets really tricky as different drugs stay in the body for different amounts of time. It really begs the question, when is a person actually high?”

By the third year of his job, Paul started having trouble in his marriage, “We went to see a marriage counselor, and all of a sudden I hear myself saying that I have a problem with substance abuse. The guy said, ‘I can’t do marriage counseling for you, you need drug rehab.’ I had to go to my employer, and the contract said that I would attend 12-step meetings while I was in intensive outpatient. I didn’t control airplanes for nine months after I did the intensive program. Once I was done, I went right back to using, and I never did go to the marriage counseling.”

Despite the critical nature of Paul’s job, after having his card signed at NA meetings for nine months, he went back to business as usual and the FAA did not attempt to follow up on his well-being or provide any ongoing support. For Paul, the problem only escalated, “I used the drugs as soon as I got off my shift, and then I would use until I went to sleep. I started taking a lot of sick days because I couldn’t stop using. When I finally had to take a medical disability, I had no sick hours left.”

According to Stephen Festa, the COO of Employers Holdings, a worker’s compensation company, opioids on and off the job is the new and big concern. “To those of us in the workers compensation insurance industry, prescription opioid abuse is of particular concern. The Centers for Disease Control has reported that more people die from prescription painkillers than from heroin or cocaine. Opioid addiction has been linked to decreased worker productivity, as well as making workplaces less safe, prolonging disability claims, and increasing the risk of death from overdoses.”

By the time Paul tried to get clean, the FAA had little patience for his drug history. “They pulled my medical records, which showed that I had been prescribed Xanax. At that time, there was a stipulation that the use of Xanax would permanently bar you from working as an air traffic controller. It wasn’t a disciplinary discharge, but a medical discharge, and I could never be an air traffic controller again.”

As opioid use continues to increase, and as more employees struggle with addiction while on the job, it remains to be seen how human resource professionals will determine the best methods of intervention, and how fear of liability can be overcome to save the lives of the people who work for them, and sometimes, the people those addicts are working with.

For Paul, his final termination ended up being his saving grace. “I still had my pension, and I was able to start focusing on my recovery. And also my guilt. Though I never had any accidents or violations, I still felt so much remorse over my job. In one of my rehab stints, I had to do a victim list and I had thousands of victims on my list because of my job, because of all the people I put in danger.”

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Kristen McGuiness is the author of the bestselling memoir, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life. In addition, she has co-written numerous books in the genres of self-help, business, psychology, and dating, and has written for Marie ClaireAOLHuffington Post, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and dog Peter, and recently finished her second book, The Beautiful Lives of Sad Children. Kristen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow her on Twitter.