Dealing with Possible Employee Intoxication: Smart Steps for the Supervisor

For a variety of reasons, managers are reluctant to confront a problem of substance abuse in the federal workplace. That is understandable but the problem has to be addressed. Here are steps you can take to begin to address the problem.

The varied definitions and indicators existing when someone is under the influence of alcohol or other substance present some critical challenges for today’s manager. The wide spread use of prescription drugs both legally and illegally complicates things further. Political correctness, the Rehabilitation Act, and a growing general fear of correcting employee misconduct add even more fuel to the fire.

So you ask, what’s the path through the maze?

First, do you have a published local policy on substance abuse? If not, look at this one from a government laboratory. It covers the bases and makes all the necessary points while satisfying the thought police from various would-be inputters:

"The Laboratory is interested in the well-being of its employees and places great emphasis on maintaining a safe and efficient work environment. The achievement of this goal depends on the active cooperation of all employees. Employees are expected to have the same concern for personal safety and the safety of their fellow employees as they have for the performance of their work. The Laboratory recognizes that alcoholism and chemical dependency are illnesses which can be treated, and the Laboratory is prepared to offer assistance to affected employees. Employees who use or traffic in illegal drugs, abuse alcohol and/or controlled substances pose unacceptable risks to the safe and efficient operation of the Laboratory. In addition to jeopardizing employee safety and/or impacting on performance, conduct and reliability, substance abuse is illegal and could lead to criminal prosecution."

Do a search and replace, substituting your organization’s name wherever you see Laboratory and you have a handy-dandy ready-made policy. (It is in bold type to make it easier.) If you can’t resist the urge to mess with the other language in the paragraph, keep your changes to things like small dog to puppy or happy to glad lest you lose all meaning.

Next, a key question that needs an answer is, are there medical standards for the position the employee holds? If the answer is yes, the Agency has the authority to direct a fitness for duty examination whenever it has a reasonable basis to believe covered employees present a risk to themselves or others based on observable behavior.


Most Feds who do physical work and/or security work are likely to have such standards but don’t assume, ask. I worked in an Agency that should have developed medical standards for its employees but didn’t for a variety of not very good reasons. The Office of Personnel Management must approve Agency medical standards so if you’re in human resources at the Agency level and think doing it is a good thing, call OPM and find out the requirements you must meet.

Next, if there are no medical standards for the position you’re dealing with, don’t give up. First find out if there’s an Agency policy, directive, regulation, guide, chapter, instruction, memorandum, letter or other appropriately named instrument that addresses the issue. If so, follow it. If not, consider the plan outlined below.

Hold up! Before you start down the steps:

Remember if you used to know or read carefully if you never knew:

ONE, only competent medical authority is qualified to conduct a medical examination relating to intoxication and render a judgment that medical attention is required.

TWO, upon completion of medical evaluation, management makes the determination as to the appropriate course of action after considering all facts bearing on the individual case at hand.

Read ONE again! Got it? If not, read ONE again!

Hold up again! You need to have some information handy.

The list of essential information every supervisor or manager should have on his or her Blackberry, Palm, IPhone; in the rolodex (Luddite!); under the glass on your gray metal desk (Dinosaur!); or committed to memory includes:

  • Who you call if things get out of hand e.g., first responders such as security, police, fire rescue, etc.
  • Nearest government (preferably) or other emergency (and walk-in) medical facility in proximity to work. Keep the phone # and contact person name (if available).
  • Who in your organization, if anyone, is supposed to provide advice and assistance (can we even hope to add HELP?) with such matters.

OK, Here are the steps!

Step 1: The supervisor determines problem exists based upon an employee’s deteriorating job performance and difficulty performing essential or peripheral job functions, abnormal behavior, problems getting along with co-workers, signs of acute intoxication, or the smell of alcohol on the breath.

Step 2: The supervisor removes the employee from any safety-sensitive or security-sensitive activities, pending an assessment of the potential problem.

Step 3: The supervisor identifies the general nature of the employee’s impairment that may be impacting the work. This may include:

A mental, emotional, or substance abuse problem is suggested by

  • General declinet in job performance;
  • Absenteeism;
  • Tardiness;
  • Interpersonal difficulties, including difficulty getting along with co-workers;
  • Emotional outbursts;
  • Other behaviors that are not consistent with the staff member’s past behavior or professional conduct.

Acute intoxication with alcohol or another drug is suggested by sudden development of

  • Odor of alcohol or marijuana on the breath;
  • Speech that is slurred, rapid, or inappropriate;
  • Tremor or shaking;
  • Loss of coordination;
  • Belligerence or inappropriate affectionateness;
  • Blood-shot eyes; wide or pinpoint pupils;
  • Skin flushed;
  • Altered mental status.

Step 4: The supervisor takes appropriate action, based upon circumstances.

If the employee appears violent or may be at risk for harming self or others, contact the identified first responder. If employee appears acutely ill, call an ambulance.

If no emergency exists, but employee appears acutely intoxicated, during regular business hours, the supervisor should:

  • Summon another supervisor or responsible employee to witness the affected employee’s behavior, physical appearance and response to the supervisor’s questions and/or instructions.
  • In the presence of a witness, confiscate any intoxicating substance the employee may have visably (don’t search unless you know the search rules) in his/her possession, giving him/her a receipt describing the contents, if known, and quantity. If the employee is reluctant to surrender the evidence, request assistance from first responders. This may sound drastic but are you willing to face the family of someone killed in an auto accident who you believed intoxicated but let drive away?
  • The supervisor may either take the employee, or have the employee taken to the nearest Federal medical facility or one with which the Agency has established a relationship. Assistance from first responders may be required in the event of transportation problems or when an employee becomes uncooperative.
  • Call the identified advisor, helper and get advice or help.
  • Arrange safe transport of the employee home upon completion of the evaluation, if required
  • Document the incident thoroughly in writing and notifies HR and the people in the chain who need to know.

Step 5: The supervisor should contact EAP directly if the supervisor suspects the employee has a mental, emotional, or substance abuse problem. Get the next swteps from the EAP person you contact.

Step 6: Follow up. Get and stay in touch with whoever in the organization can help stay on top of the situation or assist you with next steps.

Institutional Denial

If your office is in denial about the need for what’s discussed above, you have work to do. If you are a supervisor or manager at any level from high to real, get on board or face the music if there’s incident within your sphere of influence and your only answer to those doing the post incident investigation is "But he was such a nice guy?" In these matters CYA in advance isn’t only good small p politics, it may literally save someone’s life.

As usual, I am solely responsible, in this case in addition to those agencies from which I borrowed material from, for the contents of this article.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.