What to Do About an Employee With a Drug Problem

May 16, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
Caiaimage/Chris Ryan Getty Images

Practically Speaking is a weekly column that addresses your most pressing business dilemmas. The advice is the opinion of long-time business owner Gene Marks. Send your questions to PracticallySpeaking@fortune.com.

My employee has a drug problem. He said he had it under control. But now he’s missing time again and others have noticed a change in behavior. He’s a good guy and does good work (when sober). So what do I do?

It doesn’t matter where you’re located, what your company does and how many employees you have you’re likely to run into this issue at some point in your managerial life. In fact it is estimated that 70% of the approximately 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed. Your employee’s problem may not be a full-blown heroin addiction, but it could easily be a substance abuse problem on a lesser scale. And whatever the scale or the substance this will be something that will affect your business.

I had one client that tried to help. The company paid for the employee’s rehab. They gave him time off. They had employees drive to and from counselling. And he did get better. Until he fell off the wagon again. The lesson learned? You’re a business owner, not a psychologist, therapist or trained counselor. You can be willing to give a second chance. But you’ve got others in your company to think about. And unless someone is willing to help themselves, there will be little you can do in the long run to help them.

Related: What to Do When a Customer Hasn’t Paid You

So the answer is to have a detailed policy on drug abuse that every employee signs. It can be severe. It can be friendly. I like something in-between. If there is a suspected abuse issue you should allow yourself to demand a drug test (at the employee’s expense) whenever you choose. If drugs are detected you should give yourself the right to suspend that employee, without pay, while he gets treatment. You should have a specific timeframe for return – maybe 30 days. And then on return you should have a no-exceptions rule that if and when that same is employee is drug tested again and drugs are found then the employee is terminated. This is not easy. But you have to give that person the chance to fix himself. You can’t do it for him. And you have to look out for the best interests of your other employees, too.

My accounts payable staff person who has been with us for about two years is pregnant and has told us that she will soon be taking her remaining vacation days and her entitled days off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (where she will be unpaid, but still receive health insurance). I just heard through a reliable source that she intends to quit after that. Should I terminate her now?

Hmm…tempting isn’t it? You’ve been good to her. She’s not telling you she’s leaving but you know she will. She could leave you in a pinch. And yet – it’s tough to blame her. She’s not doing anything legally wrong. And many new moms want to be with their kids rather than (no offense) your boring office all day.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, if you have more than 50 employees you are required to give your employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a medical emergency or pregnancy while still holding their job. And under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act you can’t treat her differently than any other employee even if she’s pregnant. You can’t force her to resign.

But maybe you can strike a deal.

Related: What to Do When Your Sales Team Keeps Missing Its Goals

Meet with the employee and tell her you heard she is planning to permanently leave after her benefits run out. Empathize with her and let her know you won’t stand in her way. Who wants a worker coming back when she’s unhappy anyway? That benefits no one. But now that the air is clear, ask her for something in return: her willingness to help you identify and then train her replacement. Here’s an opportunity for her to give something back and not leave you in the lurch. And you’ll get someone in place that can hopefully hit the ground running once she’s out of the office. Keep the doors open and never burn bridges either – having a reliable employee who knows your operations is an asset. Maybe in time she can come back part time or on a consulting basis to provide some help without you having to bring an entirely new person into place.

And to seal the deal, buy her a nice baby gift. It’s a new baby for goodness sake!


Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.