You’ve found out an employee struggles with alcoholism. What do you do next?

Franchisors and franchisees alike must be ready to help employees suffering from alcohol addiction

You’ve found out an employee struggles with alcoholism. What do you do next?

Millions of Brits, 29.2 million to be specific, drink alcohol. And for many, it’s simply something to do socially or to relax after a hard day at work. For others, drinking booze is far more serious – impacting both personal and professional relationships.

Demonstrating the latter of the aforementioned consequences is” a tribunal witness statement that smacks home the severity of the situation. The witness argues that a colleague wasn’t just drunk – she was “hammered.” However, this didn’t stop the worker from attending a business event where she allegedly kept forgetting the names of people she knew, disappeared into the ladies’, spoke over speakers and behaved erratically in general. When the colleague reported the incident, the worker was suspended and eventually sacked for gross misconduct. Still, when the case was brought before an employment tribunal in March 2018 the judge found the dismissal to be unsubstantiated as the employee hadn’t been given a fair investigation into the events and a fair chance to respond to the accusations.

Whether you agree with the judge’s decision or not, it highlights one important point: franchisors and franchisees must know what to do if employees’ drinking habits cause problems. “[It’s] likely all employers will face this issue at some point,” says David Price, CEO at Health Assured, the wellbeing network. Indeed, the numbers don’t lie. In 2017, 80,000 people in England were treated for their drinking habits, according to the latest government figures. In the same year there were 337,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions and over 5,500 alcohol-specific deaths in England.”Alcohol abuse, like any other form of substance abuse, has a ricochet effect which touches everyone around the user, including employers and colleagues,” argues Price.

But spotting the signs is far from easy. “Alcoholism can go unnoticed for many years with the employee behaving like any other until a stressful event causes the alcoholism to become known,” says Price. Still, there are symptoms to look out for like mood swings, scruffy appearances, appetite changes, tremors, rapid weight gain or loss, failure to focus on work, declining performance and sudden withdrawals from social events.

However, it can be difficult to act even if an employee ticks these boxes. “If an employer notices an employee may have a problem with alcohol or substance abuse they’re often very unsure what they should do and end up doing nothing out of fear of doing something wrong,” says Jacob Demeza-Wilkinson, employment law consultant at the ELAS Group, the business support provider. Unfortunately, doing nothing isn’t an option. “The more lenient you are the more the employee may try to get away with,” he argues.

If you suspect a worker suffers from dependency, you should refer to your handbook. “In most cases the action the employer can take in relation to alcoholism will be outlined in an alcohol and drugs policy,” says Price. The best policies dictate the support the employer should provide as well as the responsibilities of the individual employee. Moreover, policies should advise on potential disciplinary actions and the process of dealing with alcoholism at work. If your franchise doesn’t have a policy, you’re advised to put one in place.

Importantly, while some employers may be tempted to make the alcoholic employee redundant, sacking suffering staff must be outlined in the policies as a last resort. “A dismissal can be expensive,” says Robert Maddocks, associate solicitor and specialist employment lawyer at HRC Law, the legal firm. Sure, it may be costly to support someone through an addiction but so is recruiting a replacement. Moreover, showing you care about employees can boost your retention and ability to source new talent. “It helps spread good morale among the people in the organisation,” says Maddocks. So don’t go for the nuclear option if possible.

Additionally, letting someone go could potentially land you in legal hot waters. Even though the Equality Act 2010 doesn’t protect addiction itself it may protect the underlying causes. “[The employee will] be protected against discrimination where they have a physical or mental impairment which is caused by the addiction or arises as a result of [it],” says Price. In other words, conditions like depression or being bipolar could protect the worker even if they result in alcoholism. “This means the employee shouldn’t be treated any less favourably because of the disability or something arising from the disability,” says Price.

As a matter of fact, it’s your duty to care for staff and not to remove them because it seems like the easy way out. “Employers have a legal responsibility to look after employees’ wellbeing, health and safety,” says Janice Haddon, founder and managing director of Morgan Redwood, the HR consultancy. Given their responsibility isn’t just to the single employee struggling with the addiction but to the wellbeing of their entire workforce, it’s clear franchisors and franchisees can’t afford to put their heads in the sand. “Ignoring an employee’s abuse is putting the individual and others at risk,” says Haddon.

So what should you do? “The first step for most employers will be support to help the employee recover from their alcohol addiction,” says Price. The support could take the form of employee assistance programmes and counselling as well as putting them into contact with a GP, the NHS or support networks like Drinkline, Smart Recovery Groups and Alcoholics Anonymous. Franchisors and franchisees can also help by removing stressful work.

That being said, in cases where you can’t avoid firing an employee due to their drinking habits, having followed your own policies could help you in a potential employment tribunal. “That gives [you] a strong starting point,” says Maddocks. Because staff usually agree to the handbook when they join a business, it’s easier to prove dismissed disgruntled employees wrong if a franchisor or franchisee can show they’d done everything in their power to help. “So from that perspective it’s important the employer has got stringent and good policies,” argues Maddocks.

Clearly, it’s never easy to find out your employees have a drinking problem. Fortunately, having good procedures in place to help them overcome it could save your franchise a lot of costs and could even be beneficial in the long term.

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson