Ask an Addict: So Your Boss Has a Drinking ProblemPhoto by Marina BH/Shutterstock Health Features Addiction
Addiction is an issue that impacts almost everyone in some way. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism/addiction since January 2008. During that time, I’ve gone through ups and downs but have fortunately managed to stay sober. I’ll be answering a reader-submitted question about recovery every other week (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available. This week, I’m discussing what to do when you think your boss might have an addiction to alcohol.
_I work across the street from a bar, and about every month I go there on a Friday night to unwind with my manager and some of my co-workers. Lately my manager has been overdoing it, drinking till the point of blackout. When he’s sober, his personality is somewhat abrasive and cocky (for lack of a better word), but when he’s drunk he embarrasses his team and, I’m sure, himself. He also makes a fool of himself in front of coworkers from other departments, who also frequent this bar.
During the most recent blackout, I had to remind him repeatedly when his next commuter train was scheduled to arrive, and after missing four in a row, he finally dashed out (per my insistence) to catch the last train, and when I saw him the following Monday, his face told me he hadn’t made it (I learned from his manager that he had face-planted into the pavement, and then slept in his office)._
Is there some way I can express my concerns to him? Is it out of place for me to point out that he’s hurting his own reputation, as well that of our department? I’m afraid he’s going to get in serious trouble if he keeps developing this reputation in full view of everyone we work with.
Thanks for any help you can offer,
I receive many questions along the lines of “should I/how do I confront someone about their drinking or using?” The reason I publish variations on a similar letter so often is because the minor distinctions here matter. You’ll probably approach a boss differently than you would a friend or an acquaintance. But there is something fairly universal on the other side of the equation that might be helpful for me to explain: how it feels to be called out on your substance use.
A disclaimer, DBC: I don’t know if your boss has an alcohol addiction. It sounds like there are some serious warning signs but I’ll get to that in a minute. What I want to outline is how it felt for me when I was called out about my drinking and using. This is not to dissuade you from potentially talking to your boss (or anyone else) about potential substance use disorders (SUDs). It’s just so you have an idea of how the person on the receiving end of the conversation might feel.
The first thing to know is how adept alcoholics like myself are at all things DENIAL. Whether or not your boss actually has a SUD, odds are, he knows his drinking has gotten him into trouble on occasion (be it occasionally or on every occasion).
But it’s not as simple as knowing or not knowing. It’s difficult to put words to this feeling but here goes: when I was active in my addiction, I knew somewhere deep down that alcohol was a problem for me and yet I didn’t think alcohol was my problem. Alcohol was my Russia in the Donald Trump presidency. Everyone could see that my relationship to alcohol—whatever it was—was damaging my life. But I so desperately didn’t want that to be the case. I wanted it to not be the case so badly that I pointed to anything and everything else (Fake News! Hillary Clinton! The DNC!) in hopes that people would stop looking into my painfully, troubled and destructive relationship with alcohol. In this way, I understand Trump’s insistence that he’s misrepresented and misunderstood (though I still think he’s delusional in the most literal sense). I had been approached by friends and loved ones about my excessive drinking since I was a freshman in high school, so accusations were nothing new (and that’s how I saw them—accusations, not kind, loving interventions).
When people approached me with these kind, loving interventions that I firmly believed were harsh accusations, I felt indignant. I felt like my loved ones were buying into the grand conspiracy that I was an alcoholic. I felt betrayed. And ashamed. So I got angry and I lied. In some ways, I believe this is how Trump feels when his advisors try to get him to stop tweeting. When you’re actively trying to protect your addiction, everything is black and white. You’re either with me (and my alcohol) or against me. No in between.
If you were to approach your boss about his alcohol use, that’s a possible reaction. The way that our president feels Twitter is the only way he can communicate, in his own words, with the public, no matter how much damage he does to his image, is much like how I felt being able to continue drinking was necessary to my survival, no matter how much obvious damage it was doing to my life. That is why people with SUDs get so defensive when they’re approached about their substance use. Even though it is not the reality of the situation, it feels like friends have joined forces with enemies in the fight to deprive you of what you need.
All that said, interventions are one of the most important ways that folks with SUDs end up getting help. They need to be faced with the consequences of their using so they know what’s at stake if they continue using. People like me don’t always take advantage of the options or suggestions placed in front of them but it’s important for addicts to understand how their behavior impacts their loved ones. There’s an excellent, fairly comprehensive PDF from the World Health Organization about “Brief” interventions here. It’s designed for primary care providers but much of the information about determining how “ready” a person with an SUD is to get help and other guidelines will be helpful to many loved ones (or co-workers, as the case may be).
Which, at long last, brings me to your problem, DBC. How do you, as a subordinate, approach someone in a higher position about behavior you shouldn’t have to worry about. It’s a little bit like approaching a parent with an SUD, only you’re probably less emotionally attached to your boss and he has the power to fire you.
Although it may feel unsettling to do so, I would wait until there’s another incident that both you and your boss’ boss witness. It sounds like that might be sometime in the next handful of Friday celebrations. The Monday after something happens, I would approach your boss’ boss (let’s call him Bob, because boss’ boss is starting to sound confusing). Tell him you are concerned about your boss and the impact of his behavior on the company. I would focus on specific incidents as opposed to an overall “he drinks too much” conversation, which can sound preachy. Talk about the time he almost missed his train, fell, and slept in his office. Bring those concrete things to Bob and ask him if he, too, has noticed these things and is also concerned. My guess is one of two things will happen. He will either agree and say he’ll talk to your boss (without mentioning your name) or, he’ll say what your boss does off the clock is his business. If the former happens, you’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. If the latter happens, you then have to make the decision about if you want to approach your boss as a friend, with concern for his well-being, and leave the company out of it.
Usually, I prefer direct communication with the person in question, but in a professional setting where you are concerned about the impact on the company overall, I would go to the higher up. Here’s why: Bob has the power to fire/reprimand your boss in a way that you don’t. The reason Trump is so stubborn and refuses to change is (well, there are a lot of reasons, but at least one) is that he’s everyone’s boss. There’s really no individual in the White House who can fire him (ugh, I know). Your boss may be forced to pretend to listen to his boss, even if he secretly disagrees, simply because of the power position he’s in. This also prevents your boss from taking his anger/feelings of betrayal out on you. Which would suck.
Let me know how it works out, DBC, and good luck.
Paste contributor Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor of Anxy Magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and The Establishment. Every other week she will answer one recovery/addiction related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Email questions to [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject. By emailing, you are agreeing to let Paste publish your email. Emails may be edited for length.