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Meeting the challenges of alcohol and other drug abuse: advice for transportation managers.

During the last decade, incidents such as the 1987 Amtrak -Conrail disaster created a heightened public sensitivity towards the transportation safety hazard posed by alcohol and other drug abuse. Mandatory federal testing programs were often advocated as an appropriate response to the growing political pressure and are now in place for almost all transportation modes. During the next ten years, it has been estimated that American transportation firms will spend about $2.1 billion to conduct federally required drug tests.(1)

There is little doubt that testing acts as a deterrent to illicit drug use. However, the sheer volume of policies and regulations that necessarily accompany a testing program may easily create a fascination with technology that obscures the importance of other resources available to managers seeking to achieve drug-free organizations.(2) One resource that is particularly easy to overlook is the front-line supervisor. Unfortunately, as one scholar has noted, drug testing has created a good deal of confusion about the supervisor's proper role in handling drug abuse.(3) This article seeks to alleviate that confusion by outlining the principal responsibilities of the front-line supervisor when faced with alcohol and other drug problems. It then identifies several ways in which senior managers can support the efforts of their supervisory colleagues.


Many supervisors avoid confronting employees who are experiencing difficulties with alcohol or other drugs. They do so for reasons ranging from insecurity about their own drinking behavior to a fear of falsely accusing someone. This reluctance is best overcome through an emphasis upon a performance-based approach, grounded on the assumption that it has always been the supervisor's responsibility to identify and correct performance deficiencies in the workplace, whatever the reason for their occurrence. Diagnosing and treating personal problems such as drug addition, on the other hand, falls outside the supervisor's legitimate sphere of expertise.

The performance-based approach may be viewed as one that consists of three basic steps: In the first, the supervisor observes the employee's job performance, being alert for deficiencies such as those listed in Figure 1. Most training manuals identify behaviors such as a preventable accident or a long history of absenteeism and tardiness as examples. However, additional behaviors that are clearly performance-related include rule violations (i.e., fighting, possession of drug-related paraphernalia, or unsafe procedures) and reporting for work when unable to do the job.(4)

Figure 1. Performance Problems

-- sporadic work quality

-- customer complaints

-- accidents

-- property damage or destruction

-- absenteeism or tardiness, particularly following weekend or paydays

-- excessive breaks

-- drug consumption or impairment while prohibited or on duty

-- rule violations

-- inability to do the job

Source: Derived from T. Bjerver, "Att inte blunda for det man ser," Alkohol och narkotika, June-July 1986, pp. 6-7.

Often, supervisors will observe (or become aware of) other employee behaviors which are not directly related to job performance but could signal alcohol or other drug abuse. A short list of examples is provided in Figure 2. While some of these "warning signs" are more revealing than others, none is a foolproof way for a layman to identify the underlying problem. "Marital difficulties," for example, could be caused by financial distress, arguments over children, or a boorish brother-in-law. In general, warning signs suggest only that increased scrutiny of the employee's job performance is warranted, especially if several occur simultaneously.(5)

Figure 2. Warning Signs

-- irritable or uneasy with supervisor or co-workers

-- low self-esteem

-- depressed manner

-- suspicious of supervisor or co-workers

-- frequent complaints about minor physical ailments

-- family or marital difficulties

-- frequent requests for pay advances or loans from co-workers

-- heavy intoxication at social gatherings

-- change in dress or hygiene

-- frequent transfers or requests for reassignment

Source: Derived from T. Bjerver, "Att inte blunda for det man ser," Alkohol och narkotika, June-July 1986, pp. 6-7.

The second step, documentation, should recall any instances of unsatisfactory performance (including dates and actions taken). It is important for two reasons. First, documentation helps keep the employer on a sound legal footing if discharge becomes necessary. As a recent Conference Board study notes, "the best defense for an employer terminating a worker who is abusing alcohol or drugs is written documentation of poor job performance, not documentation of substance abuse."(6) Moreover, lawsuits are far less likely in situations where permissible reasons for termination are properly documented, and in cases that do go to trial (or arbitration), personnel files often make far more credible "witnesses" than managers do.(7) A second reason for maintaining adequate documentation is that it may help in the rehabilitation of the employee. Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors (or other professionals) may be able to use documentation as a tool to overcome the patient's tendency to deny the existence of a problem. Without up-to-date records, on the other hand, an obvious case of poor performance may easily become a "your-word-against-mine" situation.(8)

The third stage, constructive confrontation, is the most difficult element of the supervisor's job. This stage is reached once it is evident that very informal "coffee talks" have failed to stimulate needed improvement. As the name suggests, constructive confrontation involves two distinct elements. While the precise content of interviews at this stage will vary depending on the circumstances, the following description is typical: During the confrontational part of the interview, the supervisor communicates the expectations of the organization in the area of employee performance and details how the employee is failing to meet them. Available documentation is used to describe specific incidents of unsatisfactory performance in a firm, honest manner. The employee is advised that progressively tougher sanctions will follow if performance does not improve within a specific time period.

During the constructive part of the interview, the supervisor expresses support and group concern about the employee's welfare, and emphasizes that group membership (i.e., employment) may be maintained if the employee's performance once again reaches a satisfactory level. Suggestions are tactfully made to the employee as to what he or she might do to meet this goal, including participation in the EAP if one is available.(9, 10)

Like any meeting where punishment occurs, interviews such as these should always be held in private, although including another management representative and/or a union steward may be appropriate. The interview should focus upon the employee's behavior (e.g. performance); no attempt should be made to discuss or diagnose personal problems. As Scanlon suggests, "the intervention is more likely to be a success if the supervisor sticks with what the supervisor knows best: job performance."(11)


Keeping the organization drug-free is much easier when frontline supervisors demonstrate their professionalism in three important ways. Perhaps no one behavior is more important than maintaining professional confidences. Employees are far more likely to support organizational anti-drug efforts or seek out needed help if they are confident that sensitive information will not be inappropriately disclosed elsewhere. Personnel files containing materials such as documentation of unsatisfactory performance must never be left unsecured. Conversations regarding problem cases, when appropriate, should not take place within earshot of disinterested others.

The stigma which was so much associated with alcoholism and other drug addictions in years past has not completely disappeared. One carry-over of this stigma is a tendency on the part of some to use inappropriate language or humour in discussions pertaining to alcohol and other drugs. The supervisor should resist this tendency in his or her own behavior. Casual jokes may unintentionally suggest to employees that the supervisor will be lax in enforcing organizational anti-drug policies. In addition, the stereotypes suggested by labels such as "pillhead," "junkie," or "lush" do little to further the notion that alcohol or other drug abuse is an illness, and create an unnecessarily difficult environment for the rehabilitated employee who is returning to duty.

Third, supervisors should be conscious of their role as communicators in fostering an ongoing employee awareness of drug-related issues in the organization. The safety hazard posed by prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs is a good example.(12) Employees should frequently be reminded of the need to advise their personal physician and pharmacist of any safety-related work that they do. Labels for medications should be read carefully. It is most appropriate for a supervisor to verify that an employee who has been absent or looks "under the weather" is not taking prescription or OTC medication that could impair safety. In cases of doubt, a physician should be consulted.


Today, most American transportation employees are subject to up to six specific types of drug tests. The most common types include pre-employment screening and post-accident testing. Testing may also occur as part of periodic medical examinations, when an employee returns to duty following an extended absence, or when a supervisor has "reasonable cause" to believe that a worker's performance may be impaired by drugs. By far the most controversial application is "random testing," where workers are singled out at random for "spot checks" even if there is no reason to suspect that they are drug users.

Scholars have noted that cost-effective drug testing should be based on reasonable cause, and the results from some surveys would seem to bear this out.(13) A recent American Trucking Associations survey of 540 carriers found that the respondents had carried out a total of some 154,000 drug tests. Only about 2 percent of the tests were subsequently confirmed positive. The "hit rate" for for-cause tests, however, was an impressive 27.2 percent.(14) While this certainly implies that for-cause tests are useful in the identification of drug users, the more interesting point is that each positive for-cause test was presumably prompted by an alert supervisor (or, perhaps, a co-worker). Clearly, testing is a complement to good management, not a substitute for it.

In any case, the for-cause test may engender a situation in which supervisors perceive themselves (or are perceived by others) as more involved with drug abuse problems and less with monitoring and evaluating job performance.(15) There are at least three ways in which this situation can be prevented. First, whenever possible, supervisors should use performance-based criteria to identify candidates for reasonable-cause drug tests. This criteria should include obvious physical signs that the employee is not fit for duty. Whatever the cause for behaviors such as poor coordination, stumbling, incoherent speech, or tremors, all are indicative of a performance problem that warrants attention.

Second, while it will sometimes be appropriate to conduct a constructive confrontation interview without a reasonable-cause drug test, the converse will rarely be true. When a supervisor decides to require an employee to take a drug test based on unsatisfactory performance, some form of progressive discipline should follow as soon as possible.(16) Whether the test result is positive or negative, a timely meeting may encourage the employee to deal with the performance deficiency that caused the supervisor to demand testing in the first place.(17, 18)

Third, supervisors should always remember that for most employees, a for-cause test is an aversive experience. The decision to require one should never be taken lightly. Seeking the concurrence of another supervisor before demanding a for-cause test is a wise precaution in most cases.(19) Furthermore, the for-cause test should be seen as an intermediate stage of the progressive disciplinary process whenever possible. At times, of course, the immediate use of the for-cause test will be very appropriate--for example, if an employee is observed smoking marijuana on duty. Many other behavior patterns, however, will persist over a period of time before prompting the decision to test. For example, most supervisors would probably be hesitant to require a for-cause test because of one or two minor rule violations. On the other hand, they might consider a brief "coffee talk" to be a sound response. Mentioning the possibility of testing at that time, should further violations occur, is a sound application of progressive discipline and is likely to increase the acceptability of testing in the eyes of employees.(20)


There is much that top management can do to help front-line supervisors carry out their responsibilities. A general area which deserves particular attention in the transportation industry is that of the organizational culture--the system of values and beliefs that describe "the way we do things here." Only rarely does the transportation setting resemble the production line, where supervisors may constantly monitor employee performance. A far greater number of transportation jobs are characterized by an absence of close supervision and a high degree of trust between management and employee. It is precisely in such settings that the organizational culture may play a key role in fostering desired employee behaviors.(21)

One goal for the culture of any transportation organization should be to discourage alcohol and other drug abuse, both on the job and off the job. There are several small but important ways in which this goal may be achieved. For example, employee possession of non-prescription drugs (including alcohol) should not be permitted while in uniform or on company property at any time. Every new employee should be thoroughly briefed on relevant company policies during his or her orientation period, and management personnel should set a good example for employees by abstaining from alcoholic beverages during business luncheons and the like. Off-site holiday festivities or picnics should be planned so as to discourage inebriated behavior: food and non-alcoholic beverages should always be available. "Designated driver" programs are appropriate if alcoholic beverages are served.(22)

Supervisory training programs are essential. Many scholars have observed that the denial that so often characterizes drug dependence may also be found in those who interact with the patient, such as family, friends, supervisors, and co-workers. Scanlon's comments on this topic are instructive:

All concerned tend to ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. They seldom have enough information early in the progression of the illness and when it is finally out of control, the tendency is to cover up rather than confront. One reason for this is that once the problem is out in the open, someone has to find a solution. That responsibility usually falls upon whoever first abandons the notion that it might go away and admits, "We have a problem that must be confronted."(23)

As the author later notes, it is seldom a lack of concern that permits this to happen, but rather a lack of ability to turn concern into action.(24) A familiarity with the identification-documentation-confrontation process outlined earlier will help build the necessary skills. In addition, supervisors should be encouraged to consult with EAP professionals as a way of overcoming the anxiety and uncertainty they may experience when faced with the task of confronting an employee.(25) They should also be familiar with the mechanics of how the EAP works, and how employees may access it.(26)

Top management should examine organizational policies and procedures related to alcohol and other drugs with a view towards ensuring that these afford supervisors a sense of clarity and purpose. A study by Beyer and Trice took place in an organization that had an extensive and detailed policy specifying how and when to administer discipline to employees suspected of having drinking problems. Less detailed policies dealt with absenteeism and sexual harassment. Their study found that managers carried out more disciplinary actions for problem drinking than for the other two offenses.

Organ has suggested that a likely reason for this result is that the supervisors of problem drinkers knew precisely how to proceed, were more confident of support by their supervisors, and could more easily legitimize their actions to other subordinates and themselves.(27) In sum, organizational anti-drug policies should indicate precisely what top management expects of its employees, and how supervisors should respond when these expectations are not met.

One policy area of particular significance lies in the relationship between the EAP and the disciplinary process. The supervisor's ability to motivate desired improvements is likely to be enhanced when safeguards exist to prevent EAPs from becoming sanctuaries from appropriate workplace discipline. As Lee has noted, while it is desirable that employees see the EAP as "a caring constructive alternative to conventional discipline," it should not be used as "an escape route for irresponsible drug users who clearly have no underlying personal problem." Therefore, he writes, "referral to the EAP may still be warranted in every instance where employees' urinalysis tests are positive, although the EAP's assessment in individual cases may be that rehabilitative counselling and treatment are unwarranted."(28)


Transportation managers should not allow political hysteria or the intricacies of federal drug testing requirements to divert attention from the critical role played by the front-line supervisor in promoting a drug-free workplace. Further, while managers should take steps to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse within their organizations, it is important that this problem not be permitted to obscure equally significant safety challenges, such as operating procedures and maintenance practices.

The front-line supervisor plays an exceptionally important role in promoting safety and efficiency in transportation operations. Preventing accidents caused by alcohol and other drug abuse is a key goal, and was the impetus behind the expanded use of drug tests during the last decade. But testing created a measure of confusion for the supervisor, for it focused attention on drugs rather than the traditional domain of job performance.

This confusion may be prevented through a reliance upon a performance-based approach to alcohol and other drug problems. Carefully designed and implemented training programs and anti-drug policies, together with an organizational culture that does not condone abuse, are essential if supervisors are to carry out their responsibilities effectively.

Mr. Henriksson is postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z2.


1 General Accounting Office, "Drug Testing: Management Problems and Legal Challenges Facing DOT's Industry Programs." November 1989. p. 2.

2 R.S. Schottenfeld, "Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace--Objectives, Pitfalls and Guidelines," American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, December 1989, p. 489.

3 B. Googins, "Revisiting the Role of the Supervisor in Employee Assistance Programs," in S.W. Gust and J.M. Walsh (eds.) Drugs in the Workplace: Research and Evaluation Data, Washington, D.C.: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1989, p. 298.

4 Too often, training materials identify difficulties such as excessive fatigue or incoherence as "physical signs or symptoms consistent with substance abuse." These, however, are more appropriately viewed within the context of job performance. The supervisor must decide whether the fatigued or incoherent employee who reports for duty is able to do the job safely. If so, the cause of the employee's behavior is of secondary importance. What does matter is that the employee reported for work when apparently unfit to do so.

5 Obviously, supervisors cannot be expected to be oblivious to symptoms commonly associated with alcohol or other drug use. As one seminal article suggests, supervisors do engage in ongoing assessments of the behaviors of those around them, and seek explanations for deviations from expected behaviors. While it is theoretically sound to discourage supervisors from diagnosing employee problems, it should be recognized that informal attempts to understand the source of poor performance will occur. (See N.R. Kurtz, B. Googins, and C. Williams, "Supervisors' Views of an Occupational Alcoholism Program," Alcohol Health and Research World, Spring, 1980, p. 46.)

6 "Employees Make The Calls," Employee Benefit Plan Review, May, 1987, p. 13.

7 L. Lunsford, "Personnel files: management's first line of defense in litigation," Employment Alert, November 8, 1990, p. 5.

8 W.F. Scanlon, Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in the Workplace, New York, NY: Praeger, 1986, p. 53.

9 H. Trice and W. Sonnenstuhl, "Constructive confrontation and other referral processes," in M. Galenter (ed.), Recent Developments in Alcoholism, New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1987, pp. 159-169.

10 Empirical literature has supported the effectiveness of the constructive confrontation strategy, although some EAP practitioners oppose its use (See D.A. Harley, "Impaired Job Performance and Worksite Trigger Incidents: Factors Influencing Supervisory EAP Referrals," Employee Assistance Quarterly, Fall, 1991, pp. 54). It should be recognized that the supervisor-initiated confrontation is not the only way of generating referrals to the EAP. Some employees may refer themselves directly or through a supervisor. In some U.S. airlines, "peer referral" has become an institutionalized practice for flight attendants. Since many transportation employees work without close supervision, it is in management's interest to encourage these practices.

11 Scanlon, p. 34.

12 An excellent discussion of prescription drug abuse may be found in B.B. Wilford, "Abuse of Prescription Drugs," Western Journal of Medicine, May 1990, pp. 609-612.

13 A.J. McBay and P. Hudson, "Cost-Effective Drug Testing," Journal of Forensic Sciences, May 1987, pp. 575-578.

14 I. Rosenfeld, "FHWA issues final drug regulations for random, post-accident testing," Traffic World, August 19, 1991, p. 15.

15 Googins, p. 298.

16 Discipline is more likely to be effective if it rapidly follows the undesirable behavior. (See, for example, D.W. Organ, Organizational Behavior, Homewood, IL: Irwin, 1991, p. 324.)

17 Even if a person has a strong dependency on a tested for substance, a test could be reported as negative because of limitations in the testing methodology or because the person abstained from the drug for some period of time before the test. Also, many testing programs do not test for alcohol; the incidence of alcohol-related problems will be far higher than those related to other drugs in most organizations. (See L. Henriksson, "The Unconvincing Case for Drug Testing," Canadian Public Policy, June, 1991, pp. 183-196.)

18 Again, where there are obvious signs that the employee is unfit for duty, it should be recalled that the supervisor need not diagnose the cause behind the unsatisfactory performance. If the employee claims to be ill, he or she should book off sick and/or seek medical attention. In other cases, it may be appropriate for the supervisor to remind the employee that workers are responsible for governing their off-duty activities (e.g. sleeping habits, diet, physical activities, and so on) in a manner that ensures that they will be ready for work when their shift begins.

19 For many modes, federal regulations require that two trained supervisors agree that a for-cause test is appropriate before one may be demanded.

20 Some organizations have incorporated this advance-notice feature into their labor agreements.

21 For an elaboration, see R.J. Davies and N. Weiner, "A Cultural Perspective on the Study of Industrial Relations," in P.J. Frost, L.F. Moore, M.R. Louis, C.C. Lundberg and J. Martin (eds.), Organizational Culture, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1985, pp. 360-2.

22 An excellent discussion of the importance of a supportive corporate culture is found in Scanlon, pp. 76-80.

23 Scanlon, p. 40.

24 Scanlon, p. 40.

25 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug Abuse Curriculum for Employee Assistance Program Professionals, Rockville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services, 1989, p. V-25.

26 The importance of training programs has been verified by empirical study (See B. Googins and N.R. Kurtz, "Discriminating Participating and Nonparticipating Supervisors in Occupational Alcoholism Programs," Journal of Drug Issues, Spring, 1981, pp. 199-216).

27 J.M. Beyer and H.M. Trice, "A field study of the use and perceived effects of discipline in controlling work performance," Academy of Management Journal, 1984, pp. 743-764. Cited in Organ, p. 330.

28 D.A. Lee, "Employee Assistance Programs in the Public Transit Industry: Experience of Connecticut Transit and Some Concerns for the Future," Transportation Research Record 1266, p. 8.
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Author:Henriksson, Lennart E.
Publication:Transportation Journal
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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