If you know an employee is drinking on job, tell the boss!

Many years ago we had a secretary working for us who had a secret; let’s call her “Polly.” And, the secret manifested itself in a strange way. For the first few months of her employment we had no issues. Then we started noticing that she performed okay in the morning, but not as well in the afternoon. She was inattentive, forgetful, and sluggish after lunch. When we are busy with mock trials and other research, we are often on the road (in this case, leaving the office sometimes occupied only by this person) or focused on post research work, so we did not really pick up on the issue for a time. We started noticing that other employees were covering for this person, doing her work, and also, that sometimes work was being done incorrectly or she was missing deadlines. The next step for us was a counseling session between her and me, as the “HR Person.” Then it escalated and Melissa also got involved with her to point out problem issues, but, it was quickly apparent that we were at a dead end and it was time for her to resign or be fired. She resigned, gracefully, and left. Only when she was gone did one of our other employees explain what was going on. Polly was drinking on the job! She started at lunch, and apparently topped off her “sippy cup” during the afternoon by going to her car and adding vodka to the cup. The cup had a lid on it, and she mixed the vodka with something such that we never smelled it, even on her (she wore lots of perfume though). We were shocked! How could we not notice? But we realized that, even though our office building is small and we can see the parking lot from our windows, Polly was parking her car strategically such that no one could see her while seated at their desks. Thus, she could refill the cup without notice. But, what was equally shocking, and maybe more, was that 1 or 2 employees knew this was going on – they had seen her or smelled the alcohol – but they never told us until she was gone. One employee said, “I thought you knew and were trying to help her…” No we weren’t and we were horrified that, rather than put the bosses on notice, even with an innocuous comment like “Polly seems to be drinking in the office; do you know that?” the other employees kept it to themselves and covered what they could. Fortunately, Polly departed before any catastrophe occurred. What if we sent her to get office supplies in her car? What if she offended a client? In later discussions with staff, and in future training with new staff, we made the analogy, if you smell smoke or see flames, report it. It is up to the bosses to decide how to handle these situations. We know people do not want to be “tattle tails” but such behavior puts the company at risk. It puts the employees’ jobs at risk – all of them. Indeed, it risks catastrophic outcomes if bad behavior is kept secret. The lesson to be learned is speak up, in private and professionally, if something is amiss. We still shake our heads today about how this played out.

Drinking alcohol on the job is never a good idea (unless one is a professional wine taster or something similar).  I have worked with many, many people over the years who were intoxicated on the job or who were experiencing the ill effects of intoxicants they consumed prior to reporting for work.  I have also known other people who “boozed it up” during work hours, but who, fortunately, were not working with me at the time.  I had a boss who, although she was well respected by the attorneys who were her clients, almost always drank wine in her coffee cup throughout the days when we were conducting focus groups and mock jury research.  (White wine looks and smells very different than coffee, even when placed in a coffee cup!)  In light of these experiences, I was quite taken aback to find out that “Polly” (a pseudonym) was drinking vodka in her sippy cup instead of the soda I believed she was drinking.  I wrongly believed she was incompetent; instead, she was drunk and incompetent!  It was just as shocking to me to find out, upon her departure from Magnus, that some of the other employees knew she was drinking on the job and chose to hide it from David and me.  A real conspiracy, if you ask me!  No ones likes to be a tattle tail (or whatever word is preferred to describe this type of person) but, on the other hand, if the ship has a hole in it and is sinking, it is every sailor’s duty to tell the captain.  Fortunately, “Polly” chose to resign when her drunken conduct made it obvious to her, and everyone else at Magnus, that she could not perform her job.  However, the overall loss of productivity for our company, not to mention the loss of trust David and I had for the remaining employees, made this experience one of many negatives in our small business.

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