What to Do If You Suspect an Employee Is Under the Influence? A Manager's Guide

Posted on January 11th, 2024.

In today's fast-paced work environment, ensuring a safe and productive workplace is a top priority. The well-being of employees is paramount, and part of this responsibility includes addressing delicate issues that may arise. 

One challenging aspect managers may face is addressing situations where an employee might be under the influence of substances. Such circumstances not only pose a safety risk but also to the overall morale and efficiency of the team. 

This post aims to help managers navigate these sensitive scenarios with care, understanding, and professionalism, offering practical steps to manage these situations effectively.

What "Under the Influence" Means

Before diving into action steps, it's essential to understand what "under the influence" entails. Typically, it refers to an individual's altered state due to substances, which can range from alcohol to illegal drugs and even prescription medication.

Types of substance abuse include:

  • Alcohol: Often the most common form, involving the consumption of beer, wine, or spirits.
  • Illegal Drugs: This includes marijuana (in states where it's illegal), cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and others.
  • Prescription Drugs: Misuse of prescribed medication like painkillers, sedatives, or stimulants.
  • Over-the-Counter Drugs: Sometimes abused for their psychoactive effects.

Recognizing Impaired Workers

As a manager, being able to recognize the signs of an employee under the influence is crucial for maintaining a safe and effective workplace. Substance abuse can manifest in various ways, and it often requires a keen eye to identify these signs. This section will delve deeper into the symptoms and behaviors that may indicate an employee is impaired, providing a clearer understanding for managers to act appropriately.

Behavioral Signs

1. Unusual or Erratic Behavior
  • Mood Swings: Sudden and unexplainable changes in mood, ranging from excessive euphoria to unexplained irritability or aggression.
  • Social Withdrawal: An employee who was once sociable may become withdrawn or isolated.
  • Inconsistent Work Performance: Fluctuations in quality and productivity, with periods of high activity followed by noticeable slumps.
  • Risk-Taking: Engaging in unusually risky behavior, showing disregard for safety protocols.

2. Performance Issues
  • Decreased Productivity: A significant drop in output or failure to meet deadlines consistently.
  • Increased Errors: More frequent mistakes or lapses in judgment, which are out of character.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Trouble focusing on tasks or following through on assignments.

3. Attendance Problems
  • Frequent Tardiness: Regularly arriving late or taking longer breaks than permitted.
  • Unexplained Absences: Increasing occurrences of sick days or no-shows without a valid reason.
  • Leaving Early: Often asking to leave work earlier than usual without a credible explanation.

Physical Signs

4. Appearance
  • Neglected Hygiene: Noticeable decline in personal grooming or hygiene.
  • Inappropriate Attire: Dressing inappropriately for the workplace or weather conditions.

5. Odor
  • Alcohol or Drug Smell: The smell of alcohol on the breath or clothing, or the scent of drugs like marijuana.
  • Covering Scents: Excessive use of perfumes or mouthwash to mask odors.

6. Physical Coordination
  • Impaired Motor Skills: Difficulty in performing tasks that require coordination, such as typing or operating machinery.
  • Slurred Speech: Noticeable change in speech patterns, such as slurring or unusually fast or slow talking.
  • Bloodshot Eyes: Eyes that are red, watery, or have dilated pupils.

Recognizing these signs is the first step in addressing potential substance abuse issues in the workplace. However, it's important to approach the situation with sensitivity and discretion, considering the implications for the employee's privacy and well-being. Next, we'll explore the steps you should take if you suspect an employee is under the influence.

Steps to Take If You Suspect Substance Abuse

When you suspect an employee is under the influence at work, it's essential to approach the situation with care, legality, and professionalism. Dealing with such a delicate issue requires a structured approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved, while adhering to company policies and legal obligations. Here are the steps to follow:

1. Document Observations

Start by documenting specific instances and behaviors that have raised your concerns. This should include detailed recordings of dates, times, and descriptions of the employee's behavior or performance issues. It's important to approach this step objectively, focusing on observable facts rather than personal interpretations or assumptions. Maintaining confidentiality during this process is crucial, ensuring that this sensitive information is shared only with the necessary personnel.

2. Consult with HR

Before taking any direct action, consult with your Human Resources department. This step is vital to understand the company's policy on substance abuse and to ensure that any actions align with legal standards. Collaborative decision-making with HR will help determine the best course of action, ensuring that it respects both company policy and the employee's rights.

3. Conduct a Private Conversation

Arrange a private meeting with the employee in a neutral and quiet space. The goal of this conversation is to express your concerns in a non-confrontational manner. Focus on the behaviors you have observed, avoiding direct accusations of substance abuse. This approach can help prevent the employee from becoming defensive and allows for an open and honest dialogue.

4. Provide Support and Resources

Offer information about any available employee assistance programs (EAPs) or professional substance abuse help. Encouraging the employee to seek assistance from a healthcare provider or a substance abuse professional demonstrates support for their well-being and recovery.

5. Follow Company Policy

Ensure that any actions taken are consistent with the company's established procedures for handling similar situations. If necessary, follow the company’s disciplinary policy, which may include formal warnings, suspension, or other measures, depending on the severity of the situation.

6. Ensure Safety

If the employee appears to be clearly impaired, it’s crucial to take immediate steps to ensure their safety and that of others. This might include prohibiting them from operating machinery or driving. Arranging for safe transportation home is also a key consideration in such instances.

7. Monitor Post-Incident

After addressing the immediate situation, it's important to continue monitoring and supporting the employee. Schedule follow-up meetings to discuss their progress and any ongoing support or adjustments needed. This might include temporary changes to their workload or responsibilities, depending on their state of recovery and well-being.

Related: Why Workplace CPR Training is Crucial for Your Entire Workforce 


Confronting the possibility of substance abuse in the workplace is a complex and sensitive challenge that requires careful consideration and a structured approach. From recognizing the signs of impairment to engaging with the employee in a supportive and non-confrontational manner, each step is crucial in ensuring the well-being of both the individual and the workplace. The importance of adhering to company policies and legal standards while providing the necessary support cannot be overstated.

At Quest Safety Training, we understand the intricacies and challenges managers face in these situations. 

Our Drug Assessment and Recognition Training is designed to equip managers and supervisors with the knowledge and skills needed to identify and address substance abuse issues effectively and compassionately. Our courses offer practical guidance and proven strategies to handle these delicate situations, ensuring a safe, productive, and healthy work environment. 

Enroll Now!

We invite you to reach out to us for more information and support in navigating these challenges. Whether it’s for training, advice, or resources, our team is here to assist you. Contact Quest Safety Training at (206) 819-4420 or via email at [email protected]. Let us help you foster a safer and more supportive workplace.


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