December 6

How To Manage an Employee Under the Influence at Work 


Best practices for restaurant managers facing the problematic situation of an employee under the influence at work. 

There is a lot to love about working in the restaurant industry, and while it can be a very gratifying career, it’s not for the faint-hearted and comes with a unique set of stressors. 

For a long time, the standard approach for blowing off steam was a shift drink at the end of a hectic night, then continuing the evening with your coworkers at a nearby bar. 

While there is more of a movement to encourage healthier alternatives for hospitality workers—drugs and alcohol are still normalized in our industry. As a result, substance abuse has become a serious issue many workers face. 

With that said, it’s unfortunate but true that, as an employer, you will likely encounter situations where an employee is under the influence at work. 

Knowing how to confront the problem professionally is not always easy, so we spoke with HR Annie Consulting, an HR consulting firm based in Portland, OR, on best practices when interacting with an employee who appears to be intoxicated. 

Approach the Employee To Identify Signs of Intoxication

If you or someone on your team notice that a co-worker seems to be under the influence, the first step is to approach the worker. Evaluate the person’s behavior for signs of intoxication, confront them calmly, and explain what you’ve observed. 

“If you have an employee with slurred speech, you can approach them and let them know what you have observed and ask questions about the behavior,” Linda Addy, Senior Consultant and Training Manager at HR Annie Consulting, told us. 

There are plenty of reasons a worker could act unusual; not all are alcohol and drug-related. 

Addy pointed out they could have been numbed at the dentist earlier, changed their medication, or have a medical condition causing dizziness or slurred speech, or perhaps—they actually are under the influence of alcohol or another substance—you can’t know without observing, and asking questions. 

“Instead of being accusatory, be factual and concerned about the behavior and continue to look for signs of reasonable suspicion,” Addy recommended. 

Signs of reasonable suspicion include  

 Physical Signs: 
• Bloodshot eyes/dilated pupils
• Slurred speech 
• Unsteady walk/uncoordinated movements 
• Shakes or tremors 
• Unexplained sweating or shivering 
• Fidgeting/inability to sit still 
• Sleeping at work or difficulty staying awake 
• Unusual body or breath odor 
• Deterioration in appearance/grooming 

Behavioral Signs:
• Attendance problems—tardiness, patterns of absences, or excessive absenteeism
• A decline in performance/productivity
• Acting withdrawn from others, secretive
• Money problems or borrowing/stealing money 

Psychological Signs: 
• Unexplained changes in personality or attitude 
• Sudden mood changes, irritability, angry outbursts, or inappropriate laughing 
• Unexplained fear or paranoia 
• Inability to focus or concentrate 

“If signs are observed, approach the employee from a place of compassion and safety and lean on your safety policies,” Addy continued. “Do not let them drive. Call a ride to avoid harm to the employee and possible liability to the company.” 

De-escalate the Situation if It Becomes Heated 

As we all know, interacting with people under the influence can be a bit unpredictable—and sometimes, the person confronted can start to get heated. 

If an employee under the influence begins to get aggravated or combative, Addy suggests keeping body language open. Avoid closed-off or aggressive expressions, maintain awareness of your tone and vocal pitch—and, if possible, try to get the person to agree with you. 

“Much like restaurant industry situations of having to cut off a guest from alcohol service, we can communicate through a lens of compassion (privately when possible),” Addy related. “When possible, bring compassion with you to vulnerable or escalating conversations.” 

If things get out of hand and suddenly you or others feel unsafe, take action to remove yourself or try and isolate the combative employee. When it’s safe for you, call for backup from a county resource or 911. 

“Employers are legally responsible for keeping employees free from severe harm,” Addy said. “An employee under the influence may be a safety hazard to themselves, employees, guests, or others. From state and federal OSHA compliance to harassment law, employers must look out for the wellness of their employees.”

Keep Documentation and Files on Record 

A good rule of thumb is document, document, document! It’s good practice to prepare in case of legal trouble regarding situations that could arise from internal teams or even customers. 

“You want to be able to demonstrate the actions taken as an employer, so be certain to document and retain your documentation in confidential personnel files,” Addy suggests. 

Keep a record of the signs you observed, the conversation that took place, and any action you took based on the situation and your establishment’s safety policy. 

“Keep in mind that an employee with alcohol dependence may ask for an ADA accommodation,” Addy said. As an employer, you may be obligated to use an interactive process to consider such a request. 

Assessing the Situation and Further Action

After things have calmed down and you’ve documented the occurrence—assess what happened and if any further action is needed with the employee who was intoxicated. 

Again, drug and alcohol dependency is a sensitive issue prevalent in our industry due to the nature of our jobs—it’s best to address the situation with compassion, as Addy mentioned. If possible, provide the employee resources and support to get help. 

“If the employee is able to continue working with you on a performance improvement plan, we recommend that you save the date to check back in with the employee to ensure the employee has a continued commitment to your safety policies and so that you can check in on their well-being,” Addy states. “If you have a drug testing policy, you could inform the employee that you will be testing them at random in the future. If the employee is on a performance improvement plan, be sure to share the consequences of any future incident.”

Check-in with other team members who may have witnessed or heard about the event to assess how their feeling. Addy states that if your team seems shaken, you might need to make a statement reminding them of your safety policy, resources like an Employee Assistance Program, and entitlements like time off, counseling, or support. 

To learn how you can better manage situations of an employee under the influence at work and support a team member facing substance abuse disorder, HR Annie Consulting can help you navigate your obligations and considerations for employee accommodations or other compliance concerns. 

Additionally, they offer in-person and virtual training sessions for employees and managers interested in learning better ways to remain safe and navigate escalating situations. In our line of work, having the tools to de-escalate potentially heated and confrontational situations is invaluable. 

About the author


Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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