The Drunk Supervisor: Implications for a Drug and Alcohol Course, DOT Supervisor Training, and Reducing Risk
Supervisors aren’t immune from alcoholism. That should sound obvious, but they do have a special set of circumstances, given their positions, that makes them more unlikely to be identified as under the influence in violation of the organization’s drug free workplace policy. There’s a problem and a risk issue present with this situation.
Reasonable suspicion training for supervisors does not include and does not require education for supervisors on self-diagnosis or alcoholic supervisors dealing with their subordinate supervisors.
Likewise, the DOT supervisor training compliance guidelines do not require making supervisors aware of institutional enabling factors that protect the drinker who is a supervisory capacity. This makes reasonable suspicion training an important opportunity to discuss this problem right in the classroom—and get the elephant in the living room exposed—or at least trying to make a meaningful impact on the problem.
Understanding Institutional Enabling in Reasonable Suspicion Training
Institutional enabling is direct or indirect support or protection given to a supervisor or manager by the organization’s work culture, processes, or structures which serve to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a substance abusing worker being identified by an authority element that could intervene.
The short translation of my definition above is “the employee’s dysfunction is naturally hidden from view.” Education in a drug and alcohol awareness class for supervisors should discuss the idea above that supervisors are in a seemingly protected class because they have more control over their schedules, productivity, work products, engagement, and availability to the organization. They are also in positions of authority and influence, and any of these things can be used by the practicing alcoholic to avoid detection, confrontation, or both. These factors above are not available to most line employees.
A general discussion of enabling is therefore an important part of any reasonable suspicion training course or class for DOT supervisors.
Self-diagnostic Educational Material on Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Supervisors should be given information about substance abuse that challenges their myths and misconceptions about addiction. This should start not with the myths soon to be identified below, but with accurate definitions and science-based information about alcoholism and addiction.
Most DOT supervisors will be unaware that alcoholism has been around thousands of years, and that it has been considered a bona fide disease for over 50 years by the AMA and World Health Organization. They will also be unaware that genetic research has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that alcoholism is inherited in at-risk persons with a history of alcoholism in their families. (Over 1000 adoptive, separated twin studies have occurred to show a four-fold increase in likelihood for addiction in susceptible twins separated at birth and raised in non-drinking homes.) These concepts are level one intervention approaches based up on scientific irrefutable information and research outcomes on addiction.
Myths and Misconceptions of Alcohol and Drug Using DOT Supervisors
Level two intervention information occurs by a direct challenge of the myths and misconceptions about alcoholism that most people adopt. These may include a belief that stress causes alcoholism, that alcoholism is a symptom of depression, that immorality causes alcoholism, people who are short on willpower will abuse of alcohol too much and become alcoholic.
All of these commonly possessed false constructs by both alcoholics and non-alcoholic people tend to be rigid, well-rehearsed, and deeply engrained in a belief system. They therefore take some discussion and confrontation. And it is hard to make a dent in a two hour training.
And, let’s not kid ourselves, no supervisor will be convinced against their will in a reasonable suspicion training class, but headway will be made because breaking down denial is a cumulative process based upon two factors—adverse experiences associated with alcohol consumption and education about the disease. In other words, denial can become a fragile thing amenable to accurate insight.
The goal for the trainer is to tinker and fracture the denial structure. That’s it, nothing more. This is accomplished with education about the nature substance abuse, addiction, alcoholism, and what these things really mean.
Familiarity between Managers and Employees is a Risk Issue
In general, managers to closely socialize with employees under their supervision degrade their ability to appropriately use authority and supervision processes to motivate and hold subordinates accountable. An appropriate sense of urgency by the employee to practice all the essential functions of their job is reduced because the ultimate lever—fear of job loss—is diminished. This fear is what helps employees get to work on time—at 8 a.m. instead of 8:05 a.m.
As mentioned, socialization circumstances will cause a manager to more likely overlook the progression of the disease characterized by increasing problems with alcohol or drug use affecting productivity, attendance, availability, conduct, attitude, and quality of work.
A supervisor who socializes with another supervisor (the familiarity hazard) is at great risk for limiting or ignoring the need to confront the employee with a substance abuse issue.
The risk associated with supervisors being friends with subordinates can’t be overstated. This piece of discussion must also be part of the enabling discussion because it will increase awareness for the supervisor and his or her behavior.
Should management suggest that supervisors not socialize with subordinates? The answer of course depends in the work culture and the nature of the business. At the very least, however, a discussion the familiarity dynamic and the risk it imposes will influence awareness and potentially reduce the number and “quality” of these risky relationships.
It is difficult to confront an employee with whom you go fishing and with whom you drink or get drunk with at the campfire—this one needs no elaboration.
Employees with Alcohol and Drug Problems are Less Likely to Be Confronted
Supervisors with substance abuse problems may be in denial, but virtually no alcoholic experiences the sort of denial equal to a drinker who absolutely has no alcohol or drug use problems at all. Instead, the denial in the alcoholic is an operative form characterized by cognitive distortions, often verbalized as statements that directly reduce awareness and significance of an association between drinking and life problems.
All this said, here’s the critical issue: The above is enough pathology to inhibit the confrontation of employees under their supervision with alcohol and drug problems.
Are you able to see the importance of discussing denial with supervisors and educating them a little bit about the risk management connections regarding supervising others who may have substance abuse problems?
Confidentiality is Everything: Confronting Alcoholic and Drug Using DOT Supervisors in Reasonable Suspicion Training Compliance Classes
Confidentiality is no less important to DOT supervisors than it is to employees, so be sure to discuss the parameters and laws that govern alcohol abuse and alcoholism related health records, assessments, hotlines, and counseling in an EAP setting.
Fear of questionable confidentiality, as we have discussed before, is an agitating force that erodes its perception of safety and assurance. So, any EAP associated with drug abuse intervention in the workplace must beat back a false perception of “the program is not confidential.” You do this by overpowering such perceptions with a positive marketing message.
It can be very helpful to explain to students that the drug and alcohol confidentiality laws created with the formation of NIAAA and the 1972 Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Rehabilitation Act of 1972 are more strict than the medical confidentiality laws that govern their patient-doctor relationship! They are stricter and fines for their violation are higher.
Terminal Uniqueness: DOT Supervisors with Drug and Alcohol Problems in Denial
In the world of alcoholic recovery, there is a concept known as terminal uniqueness. It applies to actively drinking alcoholics and also to those in recovery or struggling with managing their recovery program. “Terminal uniqueness” refers to the cognitive distortion of: My drinking is different that other people who have drinking problems, in that I have unique circumstances and/or abilities to control it consumption and any associated problems.”
Thinking one is unique and that the path to recovery is different is instead a path to the grave for an addict.
The ability of a supervisor to compare out of the disease directly contributes to and influences an undermining of the ability to confront an employee with a drug or alcohol problem. Why? The answer is simple: Employees who appear functional to the supervisor despite their drinking or drug problems will not be confronted because their drinking pattern matches supervisor’s view of their own drinking problem.
Roadblocks to getting supervisors to act on the organization’s drug-free workplace policy are often cemented in myths, misconceptions, falsehoods, distortions of cognition, and denial. This can include the nature of the supervisor’s own drinking practices. It is a significant amount of work to break through these barriers, but if risk of tragedy is to be truly reduced, then the alcohol and drug education of DOT supervisors in reasonable suspicion training classes much touch a little bit, at least, upon these issues.