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Talk to Your Employees About Substance Abuse

It can be hard to talk with your employees about substance use — but talking about your concerns is an important first step in getting them the help they need. Use these guidelines to start the conversation.

Understand the law

As an employer, you may be concerned about your legal responsibilities related to substance use. If you have 15 or more employees, your company is legally required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Massachusetts has a similar state law (Chapter 151B) that protects people with disabilities from employment discrimination, and this law applies to employers with 6 or more employees.

Under these laws, if an employee tells you that they are struggling with substance use, you may be required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” like changing their job duties or giving them time off to get treatment. If your company has a human resources department, be sure to check in with them before talking to your employee. They can help you start the conversation in a way that puts your employee at ease and complies with the law.

Learn more about the ADA and other laws related to substance use in the workplace by reviewing The Recovery Supportive Workplace Toolkit, sections 5 & 6, contained in these links:

Employee Legal Protections and Responsibilities

Employer Legal Responsibilities

Set the stage for a helpful conversation

Follow these tips to make your conversation more productive.

  • Know your company’s policies around substance use, and be ready to clearly communicate the policies to your employee.

  • Think through what you’re going to say and what resources you want to share with them.

  • Keep a record of changes you’ve noticed in their behavior at work, so you can point to specific reasons for your concerns.

  • Ask to meet in a quiet area where you can talk in private, and ask another supervisor or human resources representative to join you. If your employee is part of a union, ask a union representative to join as well.

  • Stick to the facts and try to use a calm, nonjudgmental tone as you describe your concerns.

  • Keep in mind that employees who are dealing with substance use may also be dealing with other sensitive issues, like losing a loved one. Give them time to explain what’s going on.


Be prepared with talking points

Use these talking points to guide your conversation.

Start the conversation by naming your employee’s strengths. For example:

  • “I really appreciate the creativity and new ideas you bring to our company.”

  • “You’re great with customers — our regulars are always happy to see you.”


Express your concern.

  • Focus on specific changes in your employee’s behavior or performance. If possible, give your employee written documentation of any performance problems that you’ve noticed.

  • “I’ve noticed that you’ve missed some deadlines, and once you fell asleep at your desk. Can you tell me what’s going on? Maybe we can help.”


Clearly state what you need the employee to do differently, and ask how you can support them in reaching those goals.

  • “We rely on you to be here at the start of your shift. Can you commit to get here by [time] regularly?”

  • “To be successful in this job, we need you to complete [tasks] by the deadline. How can we set you up for success so that you can complete your projects on time?” 

  • If you’re not the employee’s immediate manager or supervisor, ask their manager to help with reinforcing these expectations and monitoring progress.


If your employee tells you that they’re using substances, offer reassurance and support, then bring up next steps.

  • “I know this isn’t easy, but we are here to support you. We want to give you the resources you need to succeed.”

  • “Do you have any next steps in mind, or would you like me to help you find some treatment options? What can I do to make this process easier?”

  • “It sounds like you’re interested in getting help for your substance use. I’m so glad to hear that. Here are some ways the company can support you.”


If your employee shuts down the conversation or reacts defensively, give them time to cool down, but be clear that you need to address the issue.

  • “Let’s take some time to cool down and we can have this conversation [tomorrow or another time that works for both of you].”

  • “I understand this may be difficult to talk about, but [restate the specific performance issue or safety concern you've noticed]. So, we do need to have this conversation for you to continue working here.”

Set a time to check in with your employee. 

  • “Let’s meet again in 2 weeks to see how things are going.”

  • “By the time we meet again, I’d like you to [restate what you need the employee to do differently].”

  • Keep in mind that these are just suggestions for what to say — depending on your employee’s personal situation, the conversation may go in a different direction.


Connect them with resources

Let your employee know about any resources or company policies that may be helpful as they pursue treatment.

  • If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), let your employee know that they can access free, confidential counseling sessions and treatment referrals through the EAP.

  • Be sure to inform the employee of any company policies or state or federal laws that may be applicable to them such as the new Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave.

  • If your company offers health insurance, explain what services are covered under your plan and how to find a treatment provider that’s “in network.”

Be sure to share contact information for your health insurance company, EAP, and other helpful benefits, so your employee won’t have to dig for the details.

If your employee shares that they’re already in treatment for substance use, ask how you can support them during treatment. 


Here is a link to the section from the Recovery Supportive Workplace Toolkit on How to Talk With Employees About Your Concerns

Learn more

Keep in mind that this initial conversation is just the beginning. Talking about substance use and recovery should be an ongoing dialogue. The goal is to partner with your employee and give them the tools and support they need to be successful.

Learn more about how to support employees who are currently in recovery.

Here are some more resources to help you navigate these conversations:

Updated 8/30/21

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