Hello. First post here. The podcasts sucked me in and have revolutionized my confidence and effectiveness as a manager.

So the issue is i have this direct who is an alcoholic. He's also not very good at the job. How much can I discuss his personal demons with him? If I aknowledge he has a drinking problem, does it somehow expose the company to liability in that we are obligated to get him help?

Here's some of the backstory:

Before i was promoted to an assistant manager role 2 years ago, my bosses had put him on probation for extended periods. I believe he was on review on two separate occasions, each period lasting no less than 6 months to a year. He's been with us for three years. So yes, its known he's one of our weaker people and he's been an issue.

Each time he's been on probation he's managed to do just enough to avoid getting fired.

I was elevated to a higher management position about 10 months ago, so now he is now even more my responsibility. Around the time i got promoted, this direct was enjoying a major upswing in productivity that lasted for a few more months thereafter. It was no secret that during his brief time of peak performance he had moved in with a girlfriend who had a positive influence on him. She got him to stop drinking. Big shocker, he then became more focused at work and his productivity and general approach improved dramatically.

Then they broke up. He went back to partying, etc. And since that point, i have charts showing a steep falloff in his productivity. It's very clear what the cause and effect are.

He now frequently comes into work with blood shot eyes in the morning, slurred speech. His work has again become sloppy, difficult to manage, and inconsistent.  I'll also note that at two company holiday parties this month, he passed out at both.

My dilemma is can i / should i / how do i / i tell this guy, look, your personal life is out of control, you're an alcoholic and its impacting your work? 

I fear that if i assume I have a right to give personal life advice, I'll risk getting sucked into conversations beyond my responsibility. I also risk alienating this guy further. And again: If I aknowledge he has a drinking problem, does it somehow expose the company to liability in that we are obligated to get him help?

It feels kind of silly to only address his work behaviors without touching on the elephant in the room, which is his alcoholism.

I'm not sure this matter much, but I'll also note that i have some experience here, being that i'm a recovering drug addict myself, with 10+ years clean.



mattpalmer's picture

I'll get the legal liability thing out of the way first: I have no idea.  With the information you've provided, I'll bet that nobody else on these forums will be able to know either.  Your best bet is to talk to an appropriately experienced lawyer in your jurisdiction to get their best opinion on what the legal impacts are on your plans.

Not having been in the position you're in (either with your direct or your own history), I don't have any direct experience to draw from.  However, that's never stopped me before, so I'll give you my ideas.  I certainly think that your background is a definite positive in this situation, but more from a "feel, felt, found" perspective than "I can solve all your problems" (there's a cast on "feel, felt, found" which will explain what that's all about).  Remember that you are this person's boss, and that relationship has to come first (because that is what the company is paying you for).  You cannot be a therapist or "sponsor" for one of your directs, because the sign on your head that says "Watch out!  I'm your boss, I could fire you" gets in the way.  You can, however, give advice about programs or therapies that helped you, and encourage your direct to seek out similar assistance.

The first thing that comes to mind here is: you're going to need one hell of a good relationship with your direct to be able to tackle this problem.  Have you been doing one-on-ones?  If you haven't, start those *immediately* (with all of your people).  Let your direct talk even more than usual, have lots of open questions at hand in case the conversation flags.  In your part of the O3, make sure you talk about the positives, because a soul-crushing pile of "stuff you did wrong this week" doesn't help *anyone's* mental state.  You shouldn't avoid negatives entirely, though, to avoid making your direct think his performance is acceptable when it clearly isn't.

In my O3s, I've had directs share with me some amazingly personal and private information.  I've been deeply touched by the trust they've shown by telling me those things.  There is the possibility that with a bit of a relationship, your direct will spontaneously start to talk about his personal issues.  If it is a straightforward admission of alcoholism, you can share your own experiences as a recovering drug addict.  It may also just be an outpouring of whatever demons are haunting him.  Make sure you don't try to act as therapist (even if you're qualified for it, you can't mix treatment with being the boss).  You can, however, empathise with him, share your own experiences in return, and encourage him to seek appropriate assistance.  That might be seeing a therapist to talk about his demons, or attending appropriate substance abuse meetings, or whatever.  If your company has any sort of EAP (Employee Assistance Program), make sure you've got all the details of that program to hand, ready to provide if the opportunity presents itself.

If after a few months of O3s your direct *hasn't* opened up at all, I'd suggest providing a more explicit opening yourself.  I'm not entirely sure how I'd approach it, but I'd make reference to the behaviours that most strongly indicate an addiction problem (slurred speech is the one that stands out most strongly to me, of the list you've provided).  Then mention that you're worried that your direct *may* have a substance abuse problem, and that you'd like to help if you can, making clear reference to the fact that you've had problems yourself in the past with the same sort of thing.  Don't *force* him to admit anything, and don't push it if he really doesn't want to talk about it, but give him every possible opportunity to engage in the conversation.

If your direct is adamant about not sharing, I can't think of anything more you can do *directly* to force the issue.  You're his boss, not his parents.  There is the possibility that your admission might start a thought process in his mind that leads to him opening up (or even just quietly seeking treatment) at some point in the future, so don't think that if you don't get a tearful confession straight away that you haven't made a positive difference.

With regards to your "elephant in the room" comment, I think it is important to make something crystal clear.  You cannot control another person's feelings, thoughts, motivations, or opinions.  You are (probably) not a psychiatrist, and even if you are, the boss/direct relationship makes it impossible to be one.  You cannot directly influence your direct's alcoholism.  Don't try.  It won't work.  The only thing you *can* influence in any meaningful way is behaviour.  So stick to identifying and addressing behaviours.  Make sure you talk about both positive and negative behaviours, to keep it in balance, but if you see a negative behaviour, you're not doing you, your company, *or* your direct a favour by not addressing it.

The moment you try to talk in terms of anything other than behaviours, the overwhelming probability is that you'll get a blank denial.  If I say to one of my directs, "I've noticed you're not really motivated in your work these days, can you work on improving that?", I'm pretty sure I'll get back, "no way boss, I'm totally motivated".  A denial.  Point blank, with nowhere for me to go to address the problem.  On the other hand, if I say "I've noticed that you're not producing as many widgets in the past month compared to previous months, can you work on improving that?", it is really difficult for someone to effectively deny that (especially since I *will* have the official numbers to back me up).  The only possible response to a request to change a clearly identified behaviour, after all the bluster, is "yeah, I'll do better this month".  Denying a motivation is trivial, and impossible to counter.  Stick to behaviours.

Whilst I've never been in the position that you have, or your direct is currently in, I can only imagine that there is a feeling of shame buried somewhere in the maelstrom of emotions.  Trying to get someone to admit they have a problem when they don't want to isn't going to go anywhere, and your accusations are just going to do more damage.  If you force someone to say something like "No, I don't have a drinking problem", that will strengthen their belief that they don't, and they're that much further away from admitting their problem and seeking treatment.  I believe that's the first step in AA, isn't it?  Admitting that you've got a problem.  You can't force an admission out of someone, not one that is going to stick and cause lasting change.

One last point (assuming you haven't fallen asleep already).  While you will no doubt feel a great deal of empathy for this direct, you must remember that your first duty in this situation has to be to your employer.  If your direct doesn't deliver to the standards you set, after an appropriate period of discussing his performance and coaching for change, you will need to fire him.  There's a bunch of casts on how to fire someone, by the way, that'll help you go through the lengthy (6 month or more) process.  It will be tough, and you'd be made of stone if you didn't think a few times that it'd just be easier to let him cruise along, but you're damaging your company and your professional reputation by doing so.  You're also putting the jobs of everyone else in the company at risk -- what if this guy's lack of productivity is the difference between profitability and making a loss?  The company may be forced to downsize or close, because you didn't do your job and fire someone with unacceptable performance.  I couldn't do that to everyone else in my company.  There is also the possibility that being fired will be the only shock big enough to get this direct out of their quagmire.  I've heard plenty of stories about people who turned their lives around because they were fired, and it shocked them into the realisation that they needed to do something about their problems.  If you do need to go that far (and I truly and sincerely hope you don't), perhaps that thought will be a small solace to you.

You're in a tough position, but thankfully you come equipped with a set of experiences that make you far more qualified than the average manager to deal with the situation you're in.  I wish you the very best of luck.

Camby's picture

thanks for the feedback. i have one to ones with him every two weeks.  to date i've only stuck to addressing work behaviors and results, and have not ventured into any assumptions of the whys / causes / motivations behind his performance. he does share plenty of personal things, but he does it in a flippant way, kind of designed to keep our relationship light and give the impression he lives an exciting life.

i will point out that me mentioning my own background in the original post might have conveyed the wrong impression about my view on this. see, i truly have no desire to counsel him or psycho-analyze him or take him to 12 step meetings. i really don't. my thing is more that i know he's never going to get better unless he deals with his alcohalism, and the fact that previous bosses have been pacified to believe he's making turn-arounds in performance during brief stretches when he cleans up is the reason he's stuck  around with us for so long. i'm just not fooled by any kind of good performance streak he goes on, b/c i know it will not / can not be maintained if he's not committed to permanently changing his personal life.

... and so for me, knowing that he's a lost cause without an admittance of what keeps him back, i feel kind of paralyzed having to do this dance around his substance abuse problem. perhaps it bothers me more than others b/c i have no tolerance for it and i really hate to be in a position to have to rationalize and enable his addiction. maybe that's where it gets personal for me.

maybe, like you said, during one to ones i could be more referential in connecting his personal life anecdotes of non-stop debauchery to being symptoms of addiction. it might jar something in him to actually do what needs to be done.

i know im at the point where i'm ready to put him back on probation and move him out of here b/c it's such a charade that i've inherited.

Camby's picture

i think the most blunt way to put this dilemma is to say that any amount of energy i devote to this direct is a waste unless he gets real that he has an addiction problem and commits to fixing that first.  but its not my job to fix his personal life problems. 

and previous attempts to fire him by other managers had been averted by him doing just enough to skate through his probationary periods.

it's kinda crazy when you think about it, we've adopted his viscous cycles.


mattpalmer's picture

If you feel that the best thing to do is to fire this person, then put the wheels in motion to make that happen.  Listen to the podcasts on how to fire someone, and the very recent ones on documentation, and move forward.  It'll take a good six months or so of work to do the job properly, but by the end of it you'll have all the evidence you need to fire him.  Or, alternately, you'll give him the impetus he needs to clean himself up as he moves towards the door.

You said that it isn't your job to fix his personal problems.  That is true, but it isn't the core of the issue.  Not only isn't it your job, it is also beyond your ability.  You cannot change anyone's thoughts or feelings or motivations.  All you can seek to change are their behaviours.  Any attempt to change their motivations is doomed to failure.  However, motivation and feelings can be changed by their behaviour.  Man is a rationalising animal.  So much of what we do is to perform an action, guided by our subconscious, and then make up a pleasing story afterwards for why we did it.  If you can change your direct's behaviour, through feedback and coaching, then the chances are his thoughts and feelings will change too.

I think you'll get a lot out of the book "Coaching For Improved Work Performance" (  It really helped me to understand the need for focusing on behaviour, and it also has an example of how to deal with someone who comes to work drunk.

Finally, you're making a lot of assertions without proof in your previous writing.  The one that stood out at me the most was "i know he's never going to get better unless he deals with his alcohalism".  How do you *know* that?  You can certainly have strong reason to believe that.  I would agree with you that it is *unlikely* that he will change his performance without addressing his alcoholism.  I would recommend keeping an open mind about it, though.  If you limit your thinking, you'll make decisions based on your pre-decisions, not on the facts, and that isn't the most effective course of action.

Camby's picture