You suspect an employee is using drugs: What now?

You can’t prove it, but the signs are there. So how do you deal with suspected drug abuse without violating privacy rights or making false accusations?

Many would say, “Make it a performance issue. If he’s failing on the job, then tell him he has to shape up.”
OK, that’s good advice, but should you wait that long? If you suspect someone’s spaced out, there are costs – financial and social – associated with waiting.
Here are five ways to be more proactive about potential drug use problems, courtesy of Shepell fgi and Bob Rosner’s best-selling book “The Boss’s Survival Guide”:

1. Look for the signs.

Neither you nor your managers are likely experts at determining when an employee is using drugs. But there are certain signs you can look for that, when taken in tandem, can be more than just performance issues.
They include:

  • mood changes. Warning signs include employees being irritable, withdrawn, depressed or particularly energetic or talkative after breaks or lunch.
  • altered appearance. Staffers who previously were well-groomed who suddenly start showing up dressed inappropriately or not having showered should raise some suspicion. Other potential areas of concern: slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and excessive weight loss or gain.
  • diminishing returns on performance. If one of your employee’s performance starts tanking, you’d be concerned no matter what. But when taken with things like loss of concentration, misuse of equipment and frequent use of sick days, that concern should start to ebb toward suspicion.
  • problems with relationships. Be on the lookout for employees who are argumentative, uncooperative or accusative.

Clearly any of these problems, when taken alone, can be the result of any problem in an employee’s life. It’s when you start to notice a pattern of several of these that should lead you or your managers to question what’s going on.

2. Document, document, document

Noticing the signs of potential drug use is all well and good, but you’ll need to be able to point to specific instances when an employee’s behavior was just a little off in order to take any action or speak with him or her.
That’s why it’s crucial for managers to maintain specific records of employee performance.
Now, you know managers should already be doing that, and there’s no doubt you’ve trained your supervising team well. But here’s the kicker: Managers cannot include their suspicions in these write-ups.
The whole point of these write-ups is to use them when you eventually meet to discuss the issues with an employee. They must be objective in order to do that.

3. Get professional advice.

OK, so you know the signs of drug abuse now, you’ve filled your managers in on what they could be, and you’ve made sure your supervisors are documenting any and all performance issues (which they should be doing anyway).
Still, you’re not a pro at it. So contact a pro – a doctor or a drug counselor, for instance – just to be sure you’re seeing the real thing, or just something else that looks like the real thing.
And then explore with the pros the possible courses of action for treatment. What’s available? What has the best record of success?
At the very least, you want some professional opinions and backup before you go to the next steps.

4. Approach the person, but not as an enforcer.

You can, if you want, make threats about firing or other drastic measures to address the problem, but that probably won’t solve the problem. Instead, at least in the beginning, approach the person as a concerned colleague.
Explain that you’ve noticed a problem and have consulted professionals to confirm your suspicions. And then attack the problem from the angle that, first and foremost, you want to help the person.

5. Present the plan and do what you can to implement it.

You may or may not be working through an Employee Assistance Program, but whatever you do, lay out a plan for the person and your role in it – as a coach or just someone to talk to.
At that point, it’s up to the person to take action. You know how it goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but …”
If the person doesn’t respond properly and performance or on-the-job behavior becomes an issue, you can deal with that under policies and disciplinary rules. But you’ll know that you did your best to keep the problem from getting to that point.
Updated on March 1, 2013.