How to Handle Alcohol on an Employee's Breath

 Hi, not sure where I should put this thread, so I am leaving it here...

I would like some advice on how to handle an incident that occurred this morning where an employee of my firm whom I was escorting onto a client site appeared to have alcohol on his breath.

I couldn't be certain so didn't say anything, but how can one better handle a situation like this?

The employee in question is not a direct and works on a contract basis with my firm. I'm sure I should have done something, but there were other peers and some sales reps at the location and I wasn't sure of an appropriate feedback response.

I would appreciate any feedback I can use to talk to the employee asap, and well as on how to more effectively handle any similar incidents in the future.




OK, I understand your concern.  The right response is careful attention to behavior.   

So, was there anything problematic with his behavior:  slurred speech, talking too loud, poor analysis, that sort of thing? 

Could it have been aftershave?  

One must be very careful jumping to conclusions, and especially where there is no behaviorial impact (ie, if his work is really solid, then you have to have much stronger proof of his transgression.)   If his work product was poor, or his behvavior in front of the client was a problem, then you have grounds for discussion beyond his breath.  

Do you have reasons to suspect the client knew, or was concerned?   

John Hack

Thanks; Yes, It has to be about behavior

Thanks John,

Actually yes, there were a number of possible indicators ~ he wanted to confirm training content, AND got his assignment wrong (then asked me why he couldn't do the same as last time...) He seemed to forgot to press his floor button in the elevator (though he did remember his training room number), and he appeared a bit disengaged (looking down, folding his arms) while I was giving the training orientation to his clients.

Granted this guy has never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, compared to other trainers we use, and I wasn't with in the training room long enough to notice if the client notice anything; thinking about his behavior, in addition to his breath there might be reasonable grounds to suspect that he was under the influence of alcohol.

If so, I should give him feedback along the lines of 'when you ask me what the program you are going to deliver is, THEN don't press the elevator button to the floor your need, AND look down at the table when I am giving a client orientation, AND have breath that smells like alcohol; here's what happens... (seems like 'piling it on' in Step 2)

Is feedback appropriate for a non-direct? (I am in a sales role with this client)

I would like to handle this without talking to HR, as I am probably required to do.

What might you recommend?


- Kris


Jumping to Conclusions


Is it possible that it was mouth wash that you could not recognize. Is there anything else going on in their life that could distract them? It is possible that a personal crisis could have this person thinking about other things.

Like Covey says "First seek to understand...."

Imagine how you would feel if you said something and their response was ...Someone close to them passed away, or was really ill. Or they couldn't make the morgage payment.

I would approach it like this.... Did you sleep alright last night? See what he says. As M&M says, you don't always have to give feedback.

Keep us posted.

Could this be considered a Shot Across the Bow?

Thanks to John and JHB for your advice.

I called the individual and asked if he was okay this morning. Understandably he wanted to know 'why, and was there anything wrong.'  I said 'no' and that I was concerned as I felt he was a 'little off his game.'  He asked why I thought that and I mentioned the three points in my previous post ~ unclear about his training plan, unfocused in the elevator, and a little disengaged (not behavior, I know) in the orientation. 

He immediately said 'no, he felt great this morning and the training session went really well.' He asked if everything was really okay, as he was surprised by my call; I apologized for making him worry and for misreading his behavior and said 'I was only concerned that everything was okay with him'. He said he was appreciative of my concern and we left it at that.

Though I am pretty sure I did smell alcohol today, I am glad to have given him the benefit of the doubt and to 'seek to understand' rather than tackle the more serious issue this time. In either case, he is now aware that his behavior was observed, so this might be considered a proxy 'shot across the bow'




Is he a diabetic?  Some

Is he a diabetic?  Some diabetics have a fruity odor to their breath when their sugar levels are off, and it can be mistaken for alcohol.

Tough one...


One of three possible things were going on:  

 - He wasn't drinking, was actually OK, cheap aftershave, a little off his game.  No harm done, he knows you're paying attention to his performance. 

 - He wasn't drinking, something was wrong, cheap aftershave (or diabetic, or...):  No harm done, he knows you care about his performance.  He didn't want to talk about it. 

 - He was drinking.  You've fired a shot across the bow, and he knows you're onto him, and you just have to hope he does the right thing. 

John Hack

Good job


I think you handled this beautifully,  I agree with John's comments.  Good job. 

I just wanted to add that whether or not the smell was actual alcohol is irrelevant. If you thought you smelled it, the client could have thought the same thing.  In which case, I think calling it out it fine.  Consider something like "...I thought I smelled alcohol, I may be mistaken but the client could have thought the same thing."    There's probably a better way to phrase that, but I hope you get the idea.


If the client thinks they

If the client thinks they smelled alcohol, you're not going to get a shot across the bow.  You're going to get fired.

The important behavior here is "breath smelled like alcohol."  That's pretty important-- and worth specifically addressing.

Maybe it is cheap aftershave, in which case the trainer should stop wearing it.  Kris's conversation leaves this point completely unaddressed.


Another cause

As commented above I think you handled an awkward situation well.  You've done the hard part by raising the issue, so you won't feel reluctant to tackle him if it happens again.  The only advice I would add is to make sure you write up your conversation with the employee, if things do get nasty (i.e he's fired and he sues) you have some evidence that you've been tackling the situation.

FYI, another possible cause of Alcohol smell is the Atkins diet.  This was why, a few years ago, there was a spate of pilots being escorted off flights under the suspicion of being drunk.

Hope is not a method

I have to agree with Rich that my conversation didn't address the core issue that I thought I could smell alcohol, and if I could maybe the client could as well.

Though I understand it is not good to jump to conclusions, that there may have been mitigating circumstances, and that I might have been mistaken, the fact remains that we are a service industry and most clients rank alcohol abuse right up there with sexual harassment in zero tolerance. Hope (that it won't happen again) is not an effective method here.

Given that it appears easy to misread alcohol related signs and that some individuals can tolerate different amounts before they show clear behavioral signals, what might be the best way to handle suspected abuse (for want of a better word)?

There might be a cast here Mike and Mark?

sent from my iphone

Would this be an Ethical way to address the "Alcohol" "Odor"

Great Thread MT'ers

We are all learning a great lesson. Whatever the smell was " really bad breath... body odor" it sounds like Kris is still not comfortable with how he has addressed it.

Outside of getting this DR to do a breath analysis, you would not be able to prove they were drinking if things did get ugly. And jumping to the conclusion that they were drinking before work is a big one, unless it is very obvious, or it is a repeated offense.

Jardena and Rich's comment "I thought I smelled alcohol, I may be mistaken but the client could have thought the same thing." adds a new paradigm to the content.

So would it be ethical for Kris to say "The other day some one detected an odor that smelled something like alcohol, and brought it to my attention." This gives Kris a reason to directly address his concern. Since we are commenting about "What ifs" it is possible  that  the client did smell something and did make a comment to a higher up, and would give the DR another chance to come clean to Kris.

As I remember the "body odor" cast, the purpose is to understand the source of the odor "and to help the employee overcome it to protect their professional image. Time to re listen to that cast!

Good luck Kris



Being an industrial facility

Being an industrial facility we have a strict policy about alcohol/drug use prior to reporting to or during work  As a manager as soon as we think there is an issue, i.e. smell on breath, slurred speach we isloate the employee in an office and call in another manager for a second opinion or escort the employee to first aid for their opinion.  If after the second opinion we still believe there is a problem we send the employee home.  A taxi is called for the employee and we pay for it if the employee won't.  The employee is told that they are not to return to pick up there car for at least 12 hours and security is informed to watch for them.  For us it is an issue about workplace safety and risk management.  We are also responsible for the employee getting home safely not causing any accidents. 

Its all about Impact

Thanks everyone for your helpful comments, and particularly to JHB for his recommendation to go back and listen to the 'Personal Scent' cast, which I have just finished.

Mark said it's 'all about impact.' In this instance, the impact is my company's business relationship with a client if one of our trainers is on-site and might be suspected of having alcohol on his breath. Serious consequences.

I can see there are many possibilities for mistaking alcohol for other scents (John, JAEL, NICHOLBB) and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions; but, given the impact, I don't think my conversation with the individual addressed this impact at all (Jardina and Rich).

What to do now? I have already spoken to the individual trying to understand about his situation. In retrospect I should have addressed the issue then. Can I go back and revisit?

The personal scent cast was useful, but this is more serious in terms of bottom line impact. How might one better address a similar first hand observation, or a second hand report in the future.

Thanks again


Next Step and Impact


Nice work on following up. I have one question. Has the client made a comment about the "Odor"?  Was the DR training survey results in line with previous training. As a corporate trainer, we always had a record on training results, if he was drinking or ineffective, it could show up in the post class survey. 

If not, then for this event there was no impact. You inquired if the DR is having a personal crisis, while quietly firing a shot across the bow. Now the DR is aware you are watching and  you have your bases covered without blowing things out of hand. Nice job.

Next step, in a meeting with all team and department members, add to the agenda a review of company policies on drugs and drinking for good measure. If he was out of line, now he knows you are talking about him without talking directly about him. ;-)

In your first post, you said it was in the morning, I'm curious, what time in the morning?

Thanks for sharing so that we all learned more.


PS - drinking at lunch in China is very common, and in some European countries too.

Great Next Step

Nice JHB, thanks;

I have asked our sales exec to contact the client group-leader to find out how training is going. All trainers will be onsite twice a week for 3 months, so typically a survey won't be conducted until the end of the program.

Once I get feedback from the group leader I can decide how to proceed. If it is positive or neutral +, I can assume no impact. If it is less than that I can replace the trainer.

In either case, your next step regarding a group review of the client alcohol policy for all trainers is a great idea. They are all contract employees, not DRs, but I can leave a blanket voicemail that everyone (about 20) will receive. 

Training is held 8:00 to 10:00 at the client site, per their request. I initially thought the individual had been drinking late the previous evening or had a 'hair of the dog' before coming to work the morning in question.

Our client is a Fortune 50 company that has strict policies in place that we are required to adhere to as a part of our contract obligations. 

Thanks again


Document, Document

 Having just dismissed someone with a drinking problem, our only regret was that we didn't document and didn't confront sooner, maybe there would have been some different and perhaps better outcomes.  This caused some issues down the line, as some staff thought we were looking the other way; well we probably were (it did not seem that important at the time).  Live and learn.  One of the twisted issues is that it is okay to say drinking is not permitted on the job, and its okay to focus on the performance.  However, in Canada, if you try to send the employee to counselling, etc, it is an admission by the employer that the employee has a drinking problem, which becomes an illness, which becomes an area where accommodation is required under human rights legislation (you can't discriminate on the basis of illness).  So keep the conversation focussed on the behaviour.  Sending someone to a clinic is making it your problem.

Walk him to the cliffside...

 While I understand that you weren't sure if it was actually alcohol, but I would like to interject that, in my opinion, coming to work with alcohol on the breath and other evidence of drinking requires cliffside feedback - as in the recent podcast on when NOT to give feedback.  Thus, it doesn't matter if the person is a direct and you need not conduct an investigation.  Stop the behavior, send the person home, flex to backfill the job for the day, and explain the short and long term consequences.

It is not OK to show up to work drunk (or even tipsy or buzzed or whatever).  In my organization, this will get you sent home immediately and put you in danger of losing your job.  It's not a statement on the person's health or an accusation of alcoholism.  Showing up one time drunk in the morning is not necessarily a sign of alcoholism, but it is a behavior that must be stopped immediately.  If you have an onsite clinic that can make an actual, medical determination that the person has been drinking, then this appropriately documents the behavior - it does not establish an ongoing health issue.

On that note, you cannot make the determination that a person needs counseling or is an alcoholic.  Alcoholism is a health issue and can only be diagnosed by a doctor.  You should focus on the behavior and stop it.