Mr B, my long-suffering partner, was sitting in the passenger seat as I gave him a lift to a company event, recently. Poor man. He made the mistake of chatting innocently about his colleagues and mentioned that he wondered whether Dave would be there because if so, the bar was likely to run dry. “Oh,” I replied casually, “Why’s that?” “Well,” came the (still innocent, doesn’t he know me by now?) reply, “He’s a borderline alcoholic”.
At this point he realized his mistake and after a brief rabbit-caught-in-headlights moment he resigned himself to interrogation.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Well, he’s always in the pub at lunch times; he pressures everyone to go for a quick drink after work; he often arrives late, still wearing yesterday’s clothes and smelling of booze and he looks terrible.”
“What’s borderline about that? I mused.
“Just giving him the benefit of the doubt,” he replied, nervously.
When probed, Mr B admitted that no-one had ever spoken to Dave about his drinking, suggested he get help or told him that he was the talk of the office. He went on to add that others often had to cover his work, he was rarely present on Mondays and if he did turn up, he wasn’t much use before lunchtime.
I ranted on about prevention being better than cure and that someone should tackle it head on and see what could be done to help Dave out.
“Well,” came the counter argument, “What would I say? How do you have that conversation?”
This is bread and butter for me, but not so for everyone, of course. I forget that speaking to people about their drinking is something that most people aren’t confident about, rarely have to do and worry about the consequences if they get it wrong.
So, what can you do if you have concerns about a colleague’s drinking?
The first place to start is your company’s alcohol policy. Most organisations (although sadly not all) will have a policy outlining how to respond to alcohol-related issues, whether it be dealing with an intoxicated colleague, whether you can drink at company events or who you should go to for support if you are concerned about your own drinking.
If the policy doesn’t give you clear guidance, speak to your line manager, who should tackle the issue discreetly. If they're following best practice guidelines, a manager or HR professional would invite Dave for a chat and explain their concerns. They would offer support and signpost or refer him to external help (or the company’s EAP, if appropriate).
OK, Dave may not be interested, not want to make changes or deny that there’s any kind of problem but at least he knows that the help is out there if he needs it. He also knows that if his drinking is getting in the way of his job, there may be consequences. This is particularly important in safety critical roles of course. It’s not ‘grassing on Dave’ as Mr B put it, it’s supporting a colleague who may not realise that they need help and who will continue to put extra strain on his colleagues as long as his behavior remains unchallenged.
In an ideal world, HR would have already noticed that Dave’s behaviour and performance suggest there’s something amiss and his line manager would have worked with Dave to improve his performance. The manager, trained in supporting employees with substance misuse issues, would have questioned Dave sensitively and have a list of local services that could help. Dave would have felt confident in confiding that he was struggling to control his drinking and would have been signposted to appropriate support at a much earlier stage. Dave’s drinking would be more controlled, his attendance and productivity would increase, and everyone would live happily ever after.
It doesn’t always work out that well, of course, but, as I said to Mr B., “How would you feel if something happened to Dave, or he messed up so badly at work that he lost his job? Or someone else got hurt? And you could have said something that made a difference? Huh?”
Suitably chastised, Mr B. said he’d take a look at the company policy as soon as he got the chance and marital harmony was restored.