You may be surprised to discover that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may protect workers who are alcoholics, even if they currently drink. To earn ADA protection, an alcoholic's addiction must be severe enough to substantially impair "a major life activity," such as working or caring for oneself. Many heavy drinkers meet this test.
Don't let alcoholic employees use their disability as a catchall excuse. You never have to tolerate alcoholics, or any other employee, coming to work drunk or drinking on the job. Courts consistently say that employers have the right to establish reasonable workplace rules, including coming to work clean and sober. And you can hold alcoholic employees to the same standards as others.
Remember to clarify in your employee handbook the consequences for at-work drinking or drug use. Apply your rules consistently, and keep records of whom you discipline and why.
Recent case: Neiman Marcus hired John Sullivan as a sales associate. Within three months, it promoted him to assistant manager. But Neiman Marcus fired Sullivan for drinking during work hours after co-workers complained about his rowdy behavior, and a search of his desk produced an empty vodka bottle.
He sued under the ADA, alleging Neiman Marcus terminated him because he told the company that he was suffering from alcoholism (a disability) and he needed to enter rehab. But Neiman Marcus said it fired Sullivan because he violated the company's no-drinking-on-the-job rule.
A district court sided with the employer, saying that no reasonable person could conclude that Sullivan was fired for his alcoholism rather than the employer's rational, "even if mistaken" belief that he had been drinking on the job. A federal appeals court agreed. (Sullivan v. The Neiman Marcus Group Inc., No. 03-1606, 1st Cir., 2004)