Would you promote a recovering drug addict to a sensitive job in plant security? Would you let an alcoholic employee operate heavy machinery?
Some managers would answer these questions with a firm “No.” But it’s a mistake to be so categorical – and it might be illegal.
Why? Surely employment law doesn’t oblige you to jeopardize your operations for the sake of substance abusers.
Well, no, it doesn’t. But it does oblige you to judge employees with a history of substance abuse by their present conduct, not their past problems.
In that light, let’s look again at the questions we asked at the beginning. Suppose that recovering addict had been clean for several months, and his job performance had been satisfactory. You might indeed want to promote him, as long as he had the qualifications and was the strongest candidate.
If you refused him the promotion solely because of his past habit, you’d likely be violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, which recognizes past addictions to illegal drugs as disabilities.
In the case of an alcoholic employee, of course you wouldn’t let somebody operate heavy machinery if they were drunk at work. But suppose the employee was in rehab trying to beat his habit. Then, as long as his alcoholism wasn’t interfering with his job performance, you might indeed let him climb on that bulldozer or forklift.
Here’s the key point: The ADA protects employees from job discrimination based exclusively on the fact that they have a drug or alcohol problem. But it doesn’t protect them if they engage in substandard conduct or performance as a result of their addiction. Managers can deal with such people as they would with any other employee whose conduct or performance didn’t measure up.
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