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Leadership in a Crisis

Drug Use in the Workplace: A True Story

“Call 911. John has OD’d in the men’s room!” ‘John’ was on my staff and he had just overdosed on heroin in the office bathroom, unconscious with the needle still in his arm. He had overdosed on heroin in the workplace during working hours, five hundred feet from his desk! The paramedics reached him in time and revived him.

My reaction: I was glad he was alive, but I was FURIOUS.

I began writing up his immediate termination. Where I came from, if you were caught using drugs on the job it was grounds for immediate dismissal. Where I came from, such behavior was not tolerated. BUT WAIT! Not here. Not in DC. Not in this unionized office.

Using drugs was considered an illness. Addiction was a disability requiring a referral to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! No suspension, no disciplinary action, whatsoever?

The union representative told me about John’s rights. I responded, “What about the rights of all the other employees in this office who may be jeopardized by his behavior? What about trying to maintain a safe and respectful environment for everyone? What about free will and personal responsibility?”

The union representative said that I could terminate him, but even if I did, John WOULD get his job back. Termination would mean mandatory mediation.

An examination of my personal value system went into overdrive. I liked John. He was smart and personable and he had been employed over 5 years. I had only been on the job three months. But I was responsible for all the staff. I had a job to do. I had to change the toxic office environment, and I had to ensure that the organization retained its federal funding!

I decided to terminate John.” (Excerpt from Leading in Chaos: Insights to Lead Through the Storms).

The above account is true. I was the new Director of a government agency in Washington, DC when it happened. I took the following steps immediately:

Assess the Situation:

While there was a Drug-Free Workplace policy in effect, it was woefully inadequate to address the facts of this situation. Other complicating factors: there were no performance failures in John’s personnel file that would allow for disciplinary action, but it was well known by staff and line supervisors that this was not his first overdose in the workplace. In fact, there had been three!

As Director, I had to defend the organization. I had to defend the rest of the staff who were doing the best they could every day. I had to ask myself how to balance the rights of an individual against the broader rights of all of the employees. How did witnessing an overdose on the job affect the organization internally? What would be the fallout externally in such a highly political environment? How would it affect overall productivity and performance both short and long term?

Document the Facts:

Every aspect of the situation had to be documented. First, it was necessary to state the obvious: John had taken drugs while on the job. The needle used to administer the drug was still in his arm when help arrived. This was established by the on-the-scene paramedics as was the drug of choice – heroin. The drug NARCAM was used to revive him. Next, it was necessary to establish that he had given himself the drugs and that he had a history of drug abuse. Finally, assessing the performance of his duties prior to the overdose was part of the documentation. His immediate supervisor and those who witnessed the event were also consulted.

Make and Execute a Decision:

My assessment of the situation based on the facts was that John warranted immediate termination. Some may argue this action was excessive given the fact that there were no previous documented occurrences. While this is true, the facts surrounding the overdose and the state of the organization at the time necessitated swift and decisive action. I terminated John effective immediately.

Work with Key Stakeholders to Establish a Fair and Coherent Policy:

Difficult personnel situations are an excellent way to access and refine existing policies in the organization. In this situation, I collaborated with the local union representative and other stakeholders to develop an effective drug policy going forward. There were many rewrites and edits before the final policy was ready.

Ensure New Policy is Articulated to All Supervisors and Staff:

The union representative and I presented the new policy to all staff together. We included the major players who collaborated in the new policy development in the rollout. This was crucial to staff acceptance of the new policy. While management is responsible for implementing and executing new policy, management is not always trusted. Sharing the stage is one way to build trust and acceptance of change.

While the situation outlined above happened several years ago, I am not alone in having to deal with an employee with addiction. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “68.9 percent of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users, ages 18 to 64 were employed full or part time. Further, managers in every organization may encounter employee drug use where the correct action may not be readily apparent: where there is no documentation in the personnel file to use as a basis for performance disciplinary action; where there must be a balance between the rights of the individual; and the need to provide a safe and productive organization recognizing the needs of everyone.

Below are insights I used in this very difficult situation:

1. In the absence of a clear personnel policy to guide you, always do what your value system says is right and be prepared to accept the consequences.

2. Take appropriate steps to make sure the missing elements that made the current situation difficult are addressed and codified.

3. Take into account the feelings of all the staff in the organization[TM4] and give them a chance to be heard.

4. Document, document, document and if possible, seek guidance from the Human Resources Department at every step.

Most importantly, despite the noise around you, stay focused on the results you want to achieve!

Bio: Irma Neal is currently owner of Onyx Rising Financial Services; a former VP in two Fortune 500 companies, a former Deputy Mayor of Indianapolis, Director of several government organizations and author of the book “Leading in Chaos: Insights to Lead Through the Storms.”

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014,March). National survey on drug use and health:2013 dress rehearsal final report. Retrieved from /files/NSDUH-DressRehersal-2013/NSDUH-DressRehearsal-2013.pdf(

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