Substance Abuse at the Workplace—Handling A “Sleeping” Employee

January 10, 2017

Topics: Disability and Leave Obligations

Passing by an employee’s cubicle one afternoon, a supervisor notices the employee fast asleep at his desk and a used needle on the floor by his chair.  The supervisor does not know if the needle contained a legal or illegal substance (for example, the employee could be diabetic and need to inject insulin).  The supervisor calls human resources. What can and should the employer do?

Take this one step at a time and don't jump to conclusions.  Hopefully, the employer has a written policy prohibiting the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol in the workplace and while otherwise “on the job.”  A drug-free workplace policy and procedure should lay out the guidelines for dealing with the problem if it turns out to be illegal drug or alcohol use.  Additionally, being an alcoholic is usually a protected disability, as may be having a drug addiction (although coming to work under the influence of any substance certainly is not).  Thus, before taking any action the employer is going to need to determine what is going on.

In this case, the supervisor (without undue delay) should try to wake the employee and, in the worst case scenario where the employee cannot be woken, call 911.   Without regard to the reason, it should be common sense that falling asleep at work is unacceptable.  However, because the underlying reason could be a protected disability, the employer would usually be best served by showing compassion at the outset and taking steps to determine what occurred before taking any punitive action.

If there is an underlying medical condition, getting medical documentation is permissible.  If the person was using illegal drugs, termination could well be the next action—but this is one of those situations fraught with legal complications and potential obligations.  For example, the employer may need to enter into the “interactive process” to determine whether there are reasonable accommodations that could be provided to assist the disabled employee.  This is true even if the employee is simply hung over—but they are an alcoholic. While things are being sorted out, the employee usually can be sent home to dry out/get sleep/attend to the situation—while you contact an employment lawyer to understand the appropriate steps to take (including whether that “suspension” should be paid or unpaid).