Should You Be Able to Fire an Alcoholic Employee?

Should You Be Able to Fire an Alcoholic Employee?

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This post was originally published on October 5, 2015.

It’s a simple, 164-page manual on alcoholism. What it is, what to do if you have it, are married or related to someone who might have it or someone who works for you appears to have it. The Big Book’s chapter aptly titled, “To Employers,” is 15 pages solely dedicated to explaining how a boss should handle an alcoholic employee. Yet, for some reason, the powers that be at Northern Lights Manor, a personal care home in Flin Flon, Manitoba, decided the best way to handle their employee with a drinking problem was to force her to agree to never drink again.

Funny Not Funny

While I can’t say what kind of prejudices people who live in a place called Flin Flon might have but according to the Winnepeg Free Press, Linda Horrocks’ disclosed her struggle with alcoholism to her employers back in 2011, after a series of absences and a claim that she smelled like booze at work. Funny enough, she also happened to be in counseling for a drunk driving charge at the time and wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all. Whoops.

How Tough is Too Tough?

Needless to say, Northern Lights immediately suspended her without pay but then wouldn’t allow her to return to work until she signed an agreement saying she wouldn’t drink again—on or off the job—and would undergo random alcohol and drug testing. Amazingly, Horrocks was open to the testing but she was afraid to put her job on the line by promising she would never drink again on her own time. Even her union encouraged her not to sign the paperwork, as they felt she would be setting herself up to fail considering that she hadn’t even gone through treatment yet. So she didn’t sign it and they fired her.

Most people who don’t struggle with addiction will agree with Northern Lights Manor’s decision. Hell, I am an alcoholic and even I want to side with them—arguing that the addict needs to face consequences in order to get better. But Horrocks’ situation doesn’t really fit under the umbrella of chronic alkie fuck up. While there is no question that she made some pretty big mistakes (repeatedly missing work, showing up intoxicated, drinking and driving), she was brave enough to come clean with her employer about her struggles and was willing to do drug testing while she continued counseling. To me, this is a sign of someone who is coming to terms with her shortcomings and is being realistic about what she can do, in the short term, to deal with them. Presenting an alcoholic with an ultimatum only seems to be effective when offering to send them to treatment.

What about Rehab?

Speaking of treatment, the article doesn’t really mention whether Northern Lights Manor presented alcohol abuse rehab as a possible solution to Horrocks. I am not suggesting that they should have to pay for her treatment (hopefully her insurance would cover that) but seeing that Canadian law says an employer should accommodate an employee to the point of “undue hardship,” it seems like requiring her seek outpatient or residential treatment for her drinking would have been a reasonable condition for continued employment. The article does mention that the counseling Horrocks was doing as part of her drunk driving charge didn’t meet satisfactory standards for treatment in the eyes of her employers.

To Employers

Just to be clear, I don’t think employers should coddle people who have a drinking problem. If you read “To Employers,” you will find that the literature advocates for understanding and boundaries, not for some kind of free-for-all hall pass because alcoholics are sick people. If we are to follow the scientific ruling that alcohol abuse is, in fact, a medical condition, then it only seems fair to allow people who show signs of having it an opportunity to acknowledge it, treat it and correct their behavior.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.