Did you know the AA book has an entire chapter dedicated to supporting employers? A recovered alcoholic, a professional with HR experience, unpacks some of the most helpful advice.
Modern HR practice is an ever-changing, movable feast. The irony is that many of the issues that land in the HR practitioner’s lap are as old as time itself. Alcoholism in the workplace is a classic example. We don’t know when an employer first had to deal with a drunk team member, but it’s a safe bet that we’re talking hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Why am I interested in this? As well as being a full-time HR-related consultant, I’m also a recovered alcoholic. It’s been over 7 years since my last drink, but before then? Let’s just say I know how much trouble an alcoholic can cause in the workplace, for others as well as themselves.
On the other hand, I also know that something can be done. As I write this, I’m still living the busy consultant’s life – too many emails to return, conflicting dates and priorities to balance but these days such pressures no longer lead to that dreaded first drink. My solution? Alcoholics Anonymous.
A relevant blast from the past
Here’s an industry-related question. When was the first time someone wrote specifically to managers about what to do with a team member who was drinking at work? One possibility is 1939 – the year the now-famous text ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (more commonly called the Big Book) was first published in the US.
Some believe this text was written by alcoholics exclusively for other alcoholics, but this is not the case. There are in fact entire chapters written to other parties affected by the disease, for example ‘The family afterwards’ and ‘To Employers’. Yes, perhaps the largest selling self-published, non-fiction text of all-time (30 million copies sold and counting) has an entire chapter devoted to what employers can do for alcoholics in their workplace.
I once showed this chapter to an HR manager friend of mine, and her comments were largely about how contemporary its suggestions were. This feedback seems extraordinary. How could 80-year-old suggestions, written by alcoholics themselves (albeit with business backgrounds) be considered modern by a HR practitioner in the next millennium? I mean technically speaking, ‘HR’ hadn’t even been invented yet!
I invite you to read these octogenarian suggestions for yourself. No doubt, some of them may seem more possible or relevant than others, but maybe there is something that will help.
Managers need to understand what alcoholism is
One of the goals of the ‘To Employers’ chapter is to assist managers and employers to understand what alcoholism is.
The chapter is quick to point out that for us ‘AAers’, alcoholism is a disease. In other words, unlike a social or heavy drinker, the alcoholic’s problem is a lack of control. The reader is directed to earlier chapters in the book that outline this concept in more detail – for example the opinion of a leading clinician who specialised in treating alcoholics, who suggests that alcoholics have an allergy to alcohol.
‘To Employers’ points out that this view of alcoholism – i.e. that alcoholics are sick, not weak or ‘bad’ – can be quite challenging to the social, or even medium-to-heavy drinker.
In the end, the point being made seems to be that while managers may have their own views and beliefs on alcoholism, if they have a team member who is drinking at work, or coming to work drunk, perhaps it’s not the worst idea for them to be open-minded.
Alcoholics want to stop
Let me tell you briefly about my own alcoholic drinking. Near the end, because I had no control over how much I drank, once I had even one drink I was someone who desperately wanted to stop drinking, but couldn’t. ‘To Employers’ talks about this hopeless, addicted state of mind and body, and makes the point that:‘…there are many men who want to stop, and with them you can go far’.
Yes, the 1930s style of language is very skewed towards the masculine, but beyond all the references to ‘he thinks this’ and ‘he does that’, it’s a timeless message. The first step in helping an alcoholic at work is to learn if they wish to stop. Here’s what the chapter suggests:
‘State that you know about his drinking, and that it must stop. You might say you appreciate his abilities, and would like to keep him, but cannot if he continues to drink. A firm attitude at this point has helped many of us (alcoholics).
Next, he can be assured that you do not intend to lecture, moralize or condemn: that if this was done formerly, it was because of misunderstanding. If possible, express a lack of hard feeling toward him. At this point, it might be well to explain alcoholism, the illness. Say that you believe he is a gravely ill person, with this qualification – being perhaps fatally ill, does he want to get well? You ask, because many alcoholics, being warped and drugged, do not want to quit. But does he?
Offer treatment and support
Medical treatment for alcoholics has changed over the last 80 years, and AA has always had a clear tradition of having no opinion regarding what works and what doesn’t. After all, we’re not doctors, we’re just alcoholics who work a program to stay sober. However, the ‘Big Book’ does suggest on more than one occasion that if an alcoholic is badly affected by the side effects of their drinking, that a period of treatment, whatever it turns out to be, might be a good idea.
‘To Employers’ makes the suggestion to the alcoholic, that such matters should ‘…be referred to your own doctor. Whatever the method, its object is to thoroughly clear the mind and body of the effects of alcohol.’
To be clear, the offer of treatment is not suggesting that the team member concerned go to an AA meeting, or read the Big Book. That comes a little later, and make no mistake, the book itself suggests that it should only ever be a suggestion.
With some alcoholics, relapses can happen. My personal view is that the only distance between myself and the next drink is the strength of my recovery program. Some other ways of saying it (and AA has lots of sayings!) is that you can’t stay clean from yesterday’s shower, and it works if you work it. Here’s what ‘To Employers’ suggests on this subject:
‘In case he does stumble, even once, you will have to decide whether to let him go. If you are sure he doesn’t mean business, there is no doubt you should discharge him. If, on the contrary, you are sure he is doing his utmost, you may wish to give him another chance. But you should feel under no obligation to keep him on, for your obligation has been well-discharged already.’
The chapter goes on to say:
‘If your organisation is a large one, your junior executives might be provided with this book. You might let them know you have no quarrel with the alcoholics of your organisation. These juniors are often in a difficult position. Men under them are frequently their friends. So, for one reason or another, they cover these men, hoping matters will take a turn for the better. They often jeopardize their own positions by trying to help serious drinkers who should have been fired long ago, or else given an opportunity to get well.’
Again, if you disregard the gendered language, then the message is quite contemporary and empathic regarding frontline managers (junior executives). We AAers have been those drunks at work. We know all the tricks we pulled, all the lies we told, all the things we got away with. Therefore, in recovery we also know what advice might be of assistance to workplaces struggling to manage alcoholics. Throughout the chapter there is a tone of being ‘firm but fair’. To put it simply, if we’re fair dinkum and stay sober, keep us on. If we’re not and we don’t, let us go.
Near the end of ‘To Employers’, the writers provide an example of what a ‘junior executive’ might say to such a team member. To me, it reads like something someone could be saying today, in an office just across the corridor:
‘Look here Ed. Do you want to stop drinking or not? You put me on the spot every time you get drunk. It isn’t fair to me or the firm. I have been learning something about alcoholism. If you are an alcoholic, you are a mighty sick man… The firm wants to help you get over it, and if you are interested, there is a way out. If you take it, your past will be forgotten and the fact that you went away for treatment will not be mentioned. But if you cannot or will not stop drinking, I think you ought to resign’.
There’s one point I’d like to make here. Our ninth step is all about making amends for the harm we’ve caused. When it’s suggested above that the alcoholic’s past be forgotten, that isn’t to say that they aren’t to be held accountable for breaches in policy or legislation. If anything, we recovering alcoholics often end up reminding our employers of what we did, and we wish to be held accountable.
These days AA has much more to offer than a single book. We have a website, helpline, many meetings and many members. We are here to help. We stay sober by helping others alcoholics stay that way too. Sometimes this involves assisting the friends, family and employers of alcoholics, and if you need such support, I suggest you might want to get in touch with AA, or even head to an open meeting. Alcoholism is an awful thing to be shackled with, be it directly or indirectly at work. Maybe AA can help.
This article was written by an anonymous HR-related professional and member of AA. If you or someone you know needs support managing an alcohol problem, you can visit the Alcoholics Anonymous website or call them on 1300 22 22 22.