Suppose you’re interviewing job applicants, and your first interviewee lets slip that she attends AA meetings. “When you’re an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic for life,” she says. “But I haven’t taken a drink in five years.”

Wow, you think. That’s a red light, especially for the job you’re trying to fill, which involves operating a forklift. You can just see this woman slipping off the wagon and crashing the machine into something or somebody.

So you move on to other candidates. You eventually hire someone who doesn’t have the first woman’s qualifications or experience, but whom you think will be more reliable because he doesn’t have any history of alcohol abuse.

Hear that law breaking?
You may think you’ve made the best decision for your organization, but in fact what you’ve done, most likely, is violate the Americans With Disabilities Act. And if the first candidate cottons on to the reason for her rejection, you could be in line for a lawsuit.

Really? Weren’t you just protecting your organization’s best interests?

Nope. You would have been justified – obviously – in refusing to hire somebody who came into the interview stinking of booze, just the way you’d be justified in firing a current employee who repeatedly came to work drunk or high on drugs.

To be sure, the ADA doesn’t oblige you to jeopardize your operations for the sake of substance abusers. But it does oblige you to judge employees with substance abuse problems by their present conduct, not their past behavior.

What you should have done
What does all this mean in the case of your forklift-driving candidate? That you should have considered her on her qualifications, experience and abilities, rather than rejecting her for her past habit.

And there’s more: Hard as this may seem, you may have to offer accommodations even to employees or applicants who are current alcohol abusers. Under the ADA, either current or former problem drinkers may be considered disabled and entitled to the law’s protection. The accommodation you offer may involve having the person undergo inpatient or outpatient rehab treatment.

(Note: The ADA treats illegal drugs users differently. Only former drug users — not current ones — are protected.)

Let’s sum up: The ADA protects people from hiring or job discrimination based exclusively on an alcohol problem, or a history of drug abuse. 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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