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Work Place | EXECUTIVE ROUNDTABLE

Putting a Cork in VP's Irresponsible Drinking

November 19, 2001

Executive Roundtable is a weekly column by TEC Worldwide, an international organization of more than 7,000 business owners, company presidents and chief executives. TEC members meet in small peer groups to share their business experiences and help one another solve problems in a round-table session. The following question and answer is a summary of a discussion at a recent TEC meeting in Southern California.

Question: One of my vice presidents is a loyal top performer who has stuck with me through some very tough times. However, at every holiday party he has too much to drink and acts in very inappropriate ways. The old-time employees know him and just look the other way. But we have a lot of new employees, including some young, single women, who find his behavior offensive. I have talked to him in the past about his behavior, and he promises never to do it again. Of course, he always does. I don't want to come down hard on him, but I feel like I need to put a stop to his behavior. What should I do?

Answer: In the old days, companies often looked the other way when employees got out of hand at the Christmas party. However, in today's highly litigious environment, a "boys will be boys" attitude not only sends the wrong message to the rest of your work force, it sets you up for potentially costly lawsuits. To protect your business and your employees, take action before, not after, the party.

One possible solution is to simply not serve alcohol at the party. Kathleen Ellison, president and Chief Executive of B&K Electric Wholesale in Industry, no longer allows alcohol at any company function, holiday or otherwise. "We made it a policy several years ago not to serve alcohol," she says.

"I don't prohibit my employees from drinking when we attend conventions, association dinners and things like that, but we do not serve it at any events we sponsor. We're not anti-alcohol; we just don't feel it belongs in the workplace."

On the other hand, not serving alcohol punishes those who can drink responsibly and drive home safely. Plus, if your VP really wants to drink, he will find a way to do so. He can always drink ahead of time, show up at the party intoxicated and once again offend the other employees. So the real issue is not the presence of alcohol but his inappropriate behavior.

If you're serious about correcting the problem, Paul Villa, president of Great West Produce in Commerce, suggests a one-to-one conversation in which you lay out your concerns and expectations for his behavior at the party.

"Explain why his behavior has caused problems in the past and ask your VP if he will agree to not drink at the party," Villa says. "If he refuses, make it very clear that he will be asked to leave at the first sign of drunken or inappropriate behavior. Of course, you have to be prepared to follow through at the party--including taking his car keys and calling a cab if necessary."

Bill Knauf, president of Los Angeles-based Arroyo-Knauf Insurance, would take it a step further.

"I would write up his behavior and get his written agreement not to do it again," he says. "That way, if he acts up at the party, you have it documented that you tried to address the issue. I would also let him know that he faces real consequences if he breaches the agreement. Otherwise, he won't take it seriously, especially if you have threatened consequences in the past and not followed through."

To set the proper tone for the party, Ding Kalis, president of Magnus Industries in Santa Fe Springs, recommends broaching the subject in a general way at your next staff meeting. "Take a few moments to reiterate your company drug and alcohol policy and remind people in a positive way that you expect them to act like adults at the party," he says.

"Be careful, however, not to make it look like you are targeting the VP or any other individuals."

Of course, the larger and more compelling issue is whether your valued employee has a drinking problem. If so, it may be affecting his performance and your company in ways you don't know about. If you ask him point-blank, he will almost certainly deny it. And given the social stigma that still surrounds problem drinking, his own people may not be willing to tell you.

Instead of tackling the issue head-on, Ellison recommends having human resources initiate some discreet inquiries with his direct reports, asking general questions such as: "How are things going? Is your work environment OK? Is there anything you need to talk about?"

"If his drinking is causing problems, it will eventually come out," Ellison says. "People probably won't tell you, but if they trust your HR person and feel safe from any reprisals, they will tell the truth about the situation."

If your HR person does uncover an alcohol problem, the next step is to provide counseling and treatment as prescribed in your policy manual and as covered by your insurance. Be sure to document that you are making an effort to protect your employees, and put the paperwork in his files for your own protection if you have to let him go.

Alcohol problems do not go away by themselves. By taking appropriate action, you will be doing your VP and everyone else who works for you a great favor.

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If there is a business issue you would like addressed in this column, contact TEC at (800) 274-2367, Ext. 3177. To learn more about TEC, visit www.teconline.com.

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