Working Healthy

Drugs in the Workplace: the Signs, the Struggles, the Solutions

When drugs come into the workplace by way of an employee with an addiction problem, you have to approach it carefully and humanely. 

Mary, nail technician: “I love to party. I stay up late every Saturday and Sunday night drinking, smoking a few joints, and snorting cocaine if it’s available. It’s amazing how fast Tuesday morning rolls around and I have to drag myself into the salon. Sometimes I take uppers to stay awake, but most times I’m straight for my appointments.

One day last week, I was having a bad day, and during lunch I had a few drinks and smoked some pot. I wasn’t feeling that stoned, but I guess I must have been because I dropped my cigarette on a pile of papers and fell asleep.”

Alice, salon owner:

“I heard someone yell, ‘Fire!’ and we all ran in the back and put it out. Luckily no one was hurt. I’ve noticed that Mary’s been coming in late more often, and some of her clients complain about her sloppy work. I guess I should have talked to her, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble.”

Mary’s Co-Workers:

“We weren’t surprised that Mary started the fire. We’ve had to service a few of her clients when she was late or didn’t show up for work. We thought she was drinking too much and doing a lot of drugs, but when we tried to talk to her, she practically bit our heads off. It bothered us, but we figured it wasn’t any of our business.”

Mary represents a composite of drug users and alcoholics NAILS spoke to who have worked or are currently employed in a salon. Some admitted to moonlighting with a bottle of liquor, marijuana, or cocaine. NAILS talked to salon owners who admitted they look the other way when an employee is having a problem, and to technicians who said that co-workers with drinking or drug problems cloud the entire atmosphere of their salon.

Drugs in the workplace are a concern to all businesses. In the salon, an addicted technician is a potential danger to others, as in our example, and can hurt business with erratic behavior, unreliability, and volatility.

Dealing with an addicted person, whether you’re supervisor or co-worker, requires enough awareness to see the signs of a problem, and the sensitivity to either see the person through sobering up or face losing her. If you are the addicted one, the needs are the same, although the consequences are more sobering.

Statistics reveal that drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace is a growing problem. In the workplace is a growing problem. In a survey compiled by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), 24% of the 9,000 people interviewed between the ages of 18 and 34 acknowledged using an illicit drug in the past year and 11% in the past month. Another report showed that 70% of the drug users in America are employed.

In a Gallup poll conducted in December 1989, it was found that of 1,007 full-time employees asked if there was drug problem at their workplace, 49% acknowledged that drug abuse does occur, and of those, 22% characterized drug use as “widespread.”

Additionally, the survey showed that drug sales occur at the workplace. “Some employees find work is a great place to sell drugs,” says Nancy Delogu, associate director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, a non-profit organization.

  1. Elizabeth Edwards, a former business manager of a group of salons in Dayton, Ohio, and now executive director of Tucsonans for a Drug Free Workplace, in Tucson, Arizona, says she witnessed numerous cases of alcohol and prescription and illegal drug abuse in the salon. “Employees would come in with a hangover, and it would affect their performance,” she says. “But the owners didn’t want to deal with it, so they ignored it.”

While management looked the other way, clients often suffered.”If you have a hangover, you’re not chatty, friendly, or interested in being creative with clients,” she says. “If you have a drug or alcohol problem, you may be impatient and irritable – eager to get to the back room for a drink or smoke – and clients sense that.”

Years ago, information about what to do about employees with drug or alcohol problems was almost non-existent. Today there are organizations like Tucsonans for a Drug Free Workplace dedicated to helping the small business owner deal with drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace.

“Programs are just beginning to form around the country,” says Edwards. “As the availability of drugs increases, employers must contend with a greater loss of time due to absences, a growing number of insurance and workmen’s compensation claims, increased on-the-job accidents, safety problems, all of that.”

Edwards warms that the legal climate concerning drugs in the workplace is changing also, and salon owners can no longer continue to look the other way. “Ignoring the problem could result in a lawsuit, and/or the termination of your business,” she says. “technicians who come to work high on drugs or return from lunch drunk are apt to cause a devastating accident that might result in a salon fire, a client losing a fingernail, or a rash or burn from a chemical spill. Sloppy work due to a hangover or ill effects from a drug – be it prescription overuse or abuse of an illegal substance – could lead to disgruntled clients running the word-o-mouth reputation of your salon.”


Large companies and corporations are establishing Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to help employees identify and overcome drug and alcohol use problems. They counsel staff members and refer them for treatment. Those who refuse to seek help are terminated.

But what about the small business person who doesn’t have the resources to develop an EAP nor the funds to finance referrals from drug or alcohol treatment? That’s where organizations like Tucsonans for a Drug Free Workplace, NIDA, and the Institute for Drug-Free Workplace can help.

Edwards says her organization is currently in the process of putting together a consortium, or group of providers, who will offer the small business person the services of a larger EAP at an affordable cost. They can also help employers set up in-house policies against drugs that will protect them against potential problems.

“Years ago, an employer could simply fire an employer who had drug or alcohol problem, “Edwards says. But employee-initiated lawsuits have eliminated this cut-and-dried option. “Salon owners must now have a written policy against drugs in the workplace that outlines steps that must be taken when an employee is suspected of having a problem,” continues Edwards.


It’s up to each salon owner to say, “I will not tolerate drug or alcohol use in my salon. “ For some employers this is difficult because of the close-knit family atmosphere in many salons.

But ignoring an employee with a drug or alcohol problem only exacerbates the situation. Statistics reveal the majority of users only get worse, and by being silent you’re sending the message that that person’s behavior is acceptable. You’re also endangering the life of that life of that person, her clients, and co-workers by allowing her to work “high.” It’s important for anyone who works with a user, as an employer or just as an associate, to participate in rectifying the situation.

“It’s important to understand that taking a stand against drugs is not punitive,” Edwards says. “It’s not connected with law enforcement. If the person working next to you is on drugs, and it concerns you or you feel it’s a safety problem, report it to your supervisor. But the supervisor isn’t going to call the police and have that may be able to get that employee the help she needs.”


Once you realize the enormity of the problem of working with a drug or alcohol user, and decide you want a drug-free workplace, the first step is to develop a policy. For small salon owners with one or two employees and no previous problems, this could be as simple as writing a statement that takes a firm stand against drug/alcohol use in the salon.

“Call a meeting and let your employees know you’re developing policy against drugs,” Edwards says, “Get their input.

“When it’s complete, have a lawyer look it over. Then have each employee sign and date a form saying they’ve read it, understand the terms, and agree to them. Have each new employee sign a form as well, so that everyone in your workplace knows they’re subject to disciplinary action or termination if they use drugs in your salon,” she continues.

Edwards can provide sample policies, and NIDA has a hotline to help employers as well (see resource sidebar). Local corporations might also be willing to share their policies with you, and national trade associations might be of additional help. “But always check your state law when creating a policy,” Edwards advises, “and have a lawyer check the final copy.”


While a statement against drug use may protect a salon with only one or two employees, in today’s volatile sue-you, sue-me world, it may be wise for larger businesses to protect themselves by establishing a more detailed policy, including steps to be taken if or when problems do occur.

“Spell out the exact steps or course of action you will take if a problem arises,” Edwards says. “So if you catch a technician smoking a joint in the salon, for instance, put it in writing that this employee is subject to immediate termination. Again, legal actions vary from state to state - so check with a lawyer.”

If you think a technician has a drug or alcohol problem, dictate detailed steps to be taken, starting with the documentation of your suspicions, using specific instances to back up your claims. Write down the times and dates of frequent absences, lateness, client or co-worker complaints, accidents, etc. A next step would be to set up a meeting to discuss the problem with this employee.

Whenever you discuss a drug or alcohol problem with a technician, try to put the person at ease. Remember that many employees who develop drug- or alcohol-related problems are valued workers who have had a setback due to divorce, death, illness, or money problems that they’ve assuaged with drugs. Talk openly and try to establish communication. Let them know you’re on their side, and only want to help. Try to get them to relax and agree that there is a problem, and to agree that there is a problem, and to agree upon corrective actions.

If an employee admits to a drug or alcohol problem, be ready with referral numbers. Try to get them started in a rehabilitation or counseling program. Because most salons aren’t large enough to warrant their own EAP, network with individuals and organizations in your area who will agree to work with you.

Additionally, keep abreast of new laws being enacted related to this subject, and how they affect your salon. For example, The Americans With Disabilities act 1990 (ADA), enacted in 1990 and effective July 26, 1992, makes it clear that employers can prohibit drug use. But it also mandates that questions to job applicants have to be worded a certain way. After 1992, for instance, you can’t ask, “Have you ever used illicit drugs?”Have you ever used alcohol?” If you do, you’ll be extending an invitation to be sued. You can ask, however, “Have you ever been convicted of a drug-related felony?”


As drugs and alcohol invade the workplace, it’s important to educate your employees about their effects. Let them know that any level of use –even if it’s limited to weekend recreation-does influence their work, and could result in an accident of harm to themselves and other people.

“Many users don’t realize that drugs and alcohol remain in your system,” Edwards says, “especially those who get blasted on weekends and still have a hangover on Tuesday. An employer is liable if she does nothing about it.

“Salon owners may think they can’t afford to address the problem of drugs and alcohol in the workplace,” she continues, “but really, they can’t afford to ignore it. It will cost them eventually. Somewhere, sometime, it will cost them.”

Just ask Mary’s boss.                               

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