Alcoholic boss adds to office chaos

Q: I work in the financial industry, in a department recently hit with layoffs. My manager has been off for extended periods of time (2-4 months) four times over the past year and a half. These absences are not explained as sick time or vacation. We are not supposed to talk about it. Who we report to changes on a weekly basis during her absences, which gets confusing.

Also when she is in the office, she often smells of alcohol and it appears she is drinking during the day, which makes me very uncomfortable. Her DUIs are available for viewing online so I can only assume that is why she was out. It is hard to know how to react to her when she is back in the office. We also all wonder how long it will be before she relapses. It is very difficult to know how to take her as she often does not seem to know what is going on and makes bizarre requests and decisions.

I understand people go through hard times and deserve a break, but I feel upper management has put us in a very chaotic situation and it is unfair to us to have to work in this atmosphere of secrecy and uncertainty. Her manager lets this continue and I feel I cannot speak to her directly about this without repercussions. Should I go to HR anonymously for counseling, or just try to put up with it? I am at the point I do not know to deal with it and I feel very stressed and upset at work.

A. Your work environment sounds like a very difficult place right now. First, let me explain what your company may be facing in terms of legal challenges.
Assuming your representations are true, it appears that this woman may have a problem with alcohol. If she does have a problem with alcohol, she may have some job protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Most employers with 15 or more employees are required to comply with this law. ADA still requires an employee to be able to meet the essential requirements of his/her job. ADA also specifically states that those with alcohol or substance abuse problems should be held to the same standards as others in terms of job performance.
More specifically, “An alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may be required to provide an accommodation to an alcoholic. However, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct. An employer also may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and can require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol.” (Source:
ADA also requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation. In short, a reasonable accommodation is a change, adjustment or modification to an employee’s job, schedule, equipment or work environment. Your employer may be providing some time off for your supervisor to seek treatment for her condition as a reasonable accommodation.
The other challenge that your employer may be facing is compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave. The employee has to have worked more than 1250 hours in the past year and been employed for one year or more with the company. There are some additional eligibility restrictions as well.
I can understand that having a manager struggling with alcohol can be unsettling. If you have a good HR team, you could approach one of your HR representatives and share your concerns in a professional and empathetic manner. Another option is to consult your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if your employer provides such a benefit.
Often times, these situations resolve themselves in one of several ways: the employee leaves on their own, the company is forced to terminate the individual or the individual takes a long-term leave of absence and then ultimately separates from the company. One other possible outcome is that the employee seeks treatment and is able to resume working effectively. The most difficult period though is the period of time that you are describing – the interim period where your employer is probably trying to grapple with a very challenging issue that raises legal, morale, ethical and business continuity issues.

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