Accommodating Alcoholism On The Job


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by Don Phin

A Legal Report from the Society for Human Resource Management went into depth about this unique challenge. Here are some guidelines for employers:

  • You may prohibit employees from using or being under the influence of alcohol at work.
  • You may hold alcohol-dependent employees to the same performance and behavior standards as non-alcoholics.
  • You may discipline or discharge employees for inappropriate conduct generated by alcohol abuse, as long as you’re applying the same standards to all employees.
  • If an employee appears to be inebriated, you may ask them if they’re under the influence.
  • The courts are divided on whether alcohol dependency is a disability under the ADA. Some courts have ruled that alcohol dependency is a “disability” only if the condition substantially limits a major life activity.
  • Just because an individual has an episode with alcohol does not make them alcohol-dependent and therefore covered by the ADA.
  • You don’t have to put up with inappropriate behavior by someone with alcoholism; whether it’s profanity, driving under the influence, or any other behavior. Employees are also prohibited from being a threat to themselves or others, violating rules such as attendance requirements.

The Federal federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the most employee-friendly circuit in the nation) has approved these steps as “reasonable accommodation”:

  1. The main goal of accommodating an alcoholic is to get them to treatment.
  2. Provide the employee with a firm choice between treatment and discipline.
  3. If an employee agrees to go to outpatient treatment, you may discipline them for continued drinking or failure to participate in treatment.
  4. Provide the employee with an opportunity for inpatient treatment.
  5. Discharge the employee only after a second relapse.
  6. Grant at least one leave of absence to participate in a treatment program.
  7. Consider whether it’s reasonable for the company to pick up the cost of treatment, the elimination of an essential job function, and any related absences.

To learn more about accommodating alcoholism, go to

Don Phin, JD, CPCM is president of HR That Works, Inc., a firm specializing in management, employment law, and risk management. He serves as the Human Relations Key Consultant for Phin, a past president of the American Academy of Employment Law Attorneys, can be reached at (800) 234-3304; e-mail; or visit

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