Workplace Intervention


Addiction in the workplace

Actual Incidents and Stories Of Executive Chemical Dependency The following anecdotes relate to actual incidents of executive chemical dependency (including one case of sexual harassment) identified and rectified during the course of the consultancy briefs of our colleagues in the USA.

A life centred around drugs

For reasons of anonymity, names of individuals and organizations have been changed and disguised. Charles I have often used the phrase "centres his life around the getting and taking of drugs" to describe the attitudinal change that overcomes the alcoholic or addict. Charles was an excellent example of this phenomenon. He put everything else in his life, his clients, family, friends, and colleagues at the service of assuring that he would have a ready supply of cocaine.

The avidity with which he had once pursued his career was now transferred to arranging for the time and opportunity to get high. Ironically, none of his friends at the time noticed this change. Charles had always demonstrated a compulsive streak and his success as a salesman of funds to large institutions allowed him a great deal of latitude in his behavior. Like many addicts, he was in denial that any problem existed.

The turning point came when he experienced a shortfall in his personal finances. This was not surprising given the immense amounts being spent on cocaine not only for himself but also for his female companion and several other hangers on. His remedy was to transfer some funds to his personal account temporarily; since he maintained absolute control over such matters, outside the usual systems of checks and balances. His early success now served to shield him as he alternately used and then paid back from various accounts.

He kept this elaborate shell game going until a sudden downturn in the market coincided with an outside audit. The irregularities were discovered. The organization was in a quandary. Charles was their most successful employee even when you subtracted the amounts of money illegally appropriated for his own use. The decision was made to have him pay back the money and to enter treatment. A proviso was added that the right to prosecute was suspended, not eliminated. The pressure worked. Charles was able to throw off his denial that cocaine presented a problem. No one outside of several top executives and the consultant ever knew of the incident. George The takeover bid was ready; the teams of lawyers were assembled to make necessary adjustments.

A phalanx of public relations experts stood ready to spin the XYZ Corporation's bid as not hostile but superior. Only one thing was missing; the CEO. George had crashed his Bentley on a country road near his farm as a result of a combination of alcohol and methamphetamines. No one knew of his predicament since his secretary was expert at covering the tracks of his alcoholism. She removed the bottles of vodka that he kept in the wastebasket of his private lavatory. She invented conflicting appointments to explain his unavailability for conference calls. She convinced George's wife not to reveal the extent of the problem to friends who also happened to be members of the board. This time, however, her best efforts did not succeed.

A direct report confided to an influential board member that the CEO had make inappropriate comments during the meeting with the reluctant company's management; comments that required a significant sweetening of the bid. This board member wanted immediate face to face answers and was prepared to travel anywhere to get them. Upon arriving at the firm, the true circumstances were recognized by this man who had himself grown up in a household with an adored but undeniably alcoholic father. The eccentric behavior commonly described as merely the prerogative of a well-respected captain now took on a different meaning.

The board member realized that several significant decisions, including the finding that the CEO's heir apparent should be let go, were possibly influenced by the personality changes that had come with the descent into full-blown alcoholism. The use of pills had combined with this effect to produce a situation where this person left at considerable expense to the company not to mention the loss of a most experienced individual. Of course, all of the board had rationalized the move at that time. Now the merger might also prove a victim of the CEO's chronic but hidden nervous system disease. An earlier structured Structured Intervention might well have saved the situation. Robert Bob was a respected executive in the banking world. He had started as a trainee straight out of university and now stood second in line to become chief executive of a billion-dollar enterprise.

He had proved his worth time and again by championing new consumer products, strengthening the commercial lending operations and supervising the acquisition of several smaller banks. So it was a complete surprise to his superiors when a charge of sexual harassment was leveled at him by a younger female executive. Bob has always seemed the model of decorum and respect. However, several witnesses verified the other executives account. There was no notice of the problem in the press because the company settled quickly. Bob persisted in his denial that anything wrong had occurred and that some terrible misunderstanding had taken place.

The more the president investigated, the more he became aware that Bob's behavior was not isolated. The difference was that others had brushed off similar episodes. There was some legitimate fear that they would lose their jobs. Only when a long-time colleague of Bob's who had left to start an independent company consultancy had lunch with the president did the cause of this pattern become clearer. The friend let slip that for many years Bob's attitude toward women changed after he "had a couple of drinks." The difference suggested by the friend was that such events were becoming more frequent

The president was disturbed. If this was true then the possibility of a recurrence (with a settlement even higher than the one just arranged) and of damaging publicity rendering the bank vulnerable. He confronted Bob who denied everything. The president was prepared to recommend to the board a termination of Bob's contract when Bob's wife called and asked him to be part of an intervention. Bob's wife explained that the event was designed to break through Bob's protests and get him into treatment.

The president agreed and the event succeeded. Bob was described as being on leave and no public notices ever occurred although rumours spread. Bob's continued employment was tied to his meeting the conditions of his treatment as set by the consultant employed by the bank. He agreed and, although he later suffered a short relapse, his overall recovery was impressive. Most importantly there were no more episodes of the potentially disastrous sexual harassment.

High-flyers Heading For A Fall

The Structured Interventionof colleagues can help drugtakers and drinkers kick the habit, says Christine Doyle JAMES BLACK thought he was attending a surprise birthday party for his father. But when he arrived, Black was stunned to find that he himself was the focus of the party, and the reason was his terrifying dependence on heroin. Facing him were friends and members of his family. All had watched in despair as, during the Nineties, Black had changed from a successful commodity broker to a demoralised man whose early promise had evaporated. He scraped around for small cash jobs and sold everything to feed his habit. Now 37, he recalls: "I was broken emotionally, physically and spiritually - and I had very little money." His family and friends were terrified he might take a fatal overdose or be kicked to death in a gutter.

Their fear, plus the anger of a friend whose husband was supplied with heroin by Black, led them to set up the meeting. The approach is known as "structured intervention", and the family was advised by Roger Green, a chemical dependency counsellor and director of Recovery Resources. The weekend confessions by shadow ministers of puffing cannabis in their youth are a reminder that drug use, whether soft or hard, crosses all social boundaries, from rundown council estates to Westminster. For those addicted to hard drugs, however, help often comes too late.

This month, Green expands his family Structured Interventionservice with a pioneering "executive Structured Intervention plan" aimed at City firms that want to help high achieving employees at the first sign of trouble. The aim of Structured Intervention, says Green, is to encourage addicts to accept treatment willingly. "Often, those closest wait until the person is at rock bottom, when they have no other option. But drug and alcohol addiction is progressive and rock bottom can mean death, irreversible liver damage or insanity. Our aim is to 'raise the bottom' and get the person into treatment while there is still time to salvage his job - and pride." For City firms, the cost of drug and alcohol problems among high-earning, talented executives is rising.

There are worries about potential lawsuits - sexual harassment, for example, is often linked to drinking - while, as Nick Leeson's book Rogue Trader shows, drunkenness can destroy the clear headedness needed for the taking of important decisions. Black, from an affluent background, is typical of those who initially thrive on the excitement of City life, but who later succumb to a plentiful supply of heroin, cocaine and crack or alcohol abuse. Denial is the big problem, says Green. "Even when sacked, some executives insist they are in control of their drinking. Or, like Black, they have an image of what an addict looks like. They do not resemble that image so they think there is nothing serious wrong."

In one survey, 18 per cent of British companies reported drug use as a problem. Alcohol abuse, however, is the main concern: 46 per cent of large companies reported a problem, according to DrugScope (the new name for the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence and the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse). Some City firms insist on controversial pre-employment drug and alcohol tests and a few, says Dr Gareth Spier, medical director of City Medical Services, send senior employees for random tests. However, few companies have a consistent "employee assistance" policy. Such programmes, which can include structured intervention, have a much higher profile in America. Green thinks there is a reluctance here to get involved. "The stigma is such that employers and colleagues don't want to rock the boat. Yet doing nothing can lead to the sack or unwanted early retirement." Green trained as a dependency counsellor in America, at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota, which has a worldwide reputation for success in treating dependency.

Black, now successfully reaching the end of two months' treatment at the clinic, is grateful for the intervention. "For the first time, I had to put my addiction in perspective. There were more than 11 people around me, and they each told me how my behaviour had affected them. At the end, I knew that I needed treatment - I could not walk away any more." Executive Structured Intervention, as planned by Green, involves a smaller "team". "We try to bring together, say, a colleague who has expressed concern, a chief executive, a medical director, a drinking buddy or a friend from work. They each assemble the facts and collectively assess the dependency and its impact on the individual, colleagues and the company." It is completely confidential. Green insists that an assessment of performance at work can be a more reliable guide to intervening earlier than a purely clinical approach.

"Experienced executives in trouble can work to high standards for many years. But gradually they do less of it." Once an Structured Intervention is under way, the hope is that the employee will accept an immediate booking with a treatment centre. Unless they feel they have been given a free choice, there is a high risk of relapse. Eddie Roberts, a recovered alcoholic whose employer, a New York bank, intervened on his behalf, initially wanted to back off. "I was the highest-ranking executive in my office, and although I had been drinking heavily for years, I did not think I was an alcoholic. I thought I might have some medical problems - I used to nod off in meetings. "My Structured Intervention was carefully planned.

At 8am, a senior executive summoned me and told me he thought I had an alcohol problem. I was to see the medical officer there and then. I accepted because my job and financial future were at stake." The shock Structured Intervention was successful and he has not had a drink since. But he knows people who have resigned rather than face the stigma of being labelled an alcoholic. If someone refuses treatment, Green suggests that he opts for a full medical and psychological assessment. "This keeps the door open and might seem less threatening." Kirby Gregory, head of treatment services at Clouds House, a treatment centre near Salisbury, says evidence suggests that early Structured Intervention by employers is effective. "Already it is part of some employee assistance programmes. All I ask is that the person with the problem is fully informed about what is available at different treatment centres. That is essential to recovery."

Companies increasingly realise they can no longer ignore the issues

Structured Intervention is not cheap. The cost ranges from about $3,000 to $4,000 for family interventions - negotiable according to means - and $6,000 to $7,000 for company workplace interventions. 30 day rehab at The Retreat costs about $2,500 per week. But, given the sums that could be at stake, companies increasingly realise they can no longer ignore the issues.

Executive warning signs:

  • Fall-off in workload Talented executives often continue to perform at a high level for years - unlike those in less demanding jobs - but close observers will notice tiny signs of job shrinkage as they begin to do fewer things.
  • Inflexibility They start to solve problems by relying on solutions that worked well in the past, but these might no longer be the best way ahead. Stress in others, increased time off, tension, moodiness and irritability in colleagues are signs that something is wrong.
  • Withdrawal Those affected are unlikely to take part in light-hearted discussions on how to cut back their wine drinking.
  • Misleading Ambition Career is still the driving force - so absenteeism or slacking are not an initial problem. Appearance might remain impeccable.
  • Erosion of trust Credibility and trust between addicts and others subtly begins to slip, even though it might be difficult to fault performance.
  • Fall-off in confidence It's more a case of sensing that something is wrong, but fall-off in confidence continues.
  • More problems Personal and financial problems begin to emerge at work. Long phone calls and unusual visits by a spouse to the office are signs.
  • Losing responsibility Other executives take on particularly sensitive or important projects.