“I recently confided to my line manager that I have an alcohol problem. Soon thereafter the company sent out an email informing us that anybody caught drinking or smelling of alcohol at work would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. I know I have a problem and need help, but I am worried that the employer is getting ready to dismiss me. Can they do this?”
There is a thin line between addiction and being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Our labour laws recognise addiction as a form of incapacity and employers are required to actively assist employees with overcoming addiction through counselling and rehabilitation.
It would however be incorrect to say that an employer can never take disciplinary steps against an employee who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol because each case is decided on its own merits and will determine whether counselling, rehabilitation or disciplinary action is the appropriate course of action. For instance, counselling or rehabilitation would not be appropriate for an employee who denies that she/he has an alcohol/substance dependency or refuses assistance in the form of counselling or rehabilitation. This means that such an employee may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings which could, depending on the facts, lead to sanctions such as dismissal.
Employees need not be under the influence during working hours in order to receive assistance in the form of counselling or rehabilitation and the obligation of assistance also includes employees who have displayed a habit of being unable to perform their duties during working hours as a result of their habitual alcohol consumption/substance use in their private time.
Although employers are required to deal with addiction cases in a sensitive manner by offering assistance to an affected employee, it is important to be mindful of the fact that employers are also required to provide a safe working environment for all employees. This means that an employee who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs not only poses a risk to themselves but to other employees as well. Employers should have a policy in place to address substance/alcohol abuse at the workplace or during the scope of one’s duties, the prohibition on such use, testing procedures and an employee assistance programme which outlines the counselling or rehabilitation option.
I would therefore recommend that you consult your company’s policy on alcohol and substance abuse to familiarize yourself with the company procedures or where no such policy exists, take up your problem with your employer and request assistance to deal with your addiction.