I think my coworker is an alcoholic

A reader writes:

My coworker “Sterling” has always been a hard partying guy, but recently he’s been drinking more and more, and it’s a problem. Several times a week he either comes to work smelling like alcohol or complains to anyone who will listen about how hung over he is.

Sterling is in his mid-20’s, single, and lives alone. He moved from out of state for this job, has no family in the area, and I don’t think he has any friends who he doesn’t know through work. So he doesn’t have much of a support network locally and I suspect he’s lonely and depressed. He’s junior to me, but in another department and his manager, “Cyril,” is 90% remote. Cyril is aware of Sterling’s drinking, as Sterling has included him in his hangover gripes when he is in the office. But as far as I can tell, he hasn’t done anything to address the behavior, other than telling Sterling not to call in sick just for being hung over.

I think the main reason why he’s been allowed to get away with this as long as he has is that he has a highly specialized skill set that’s core to our company’s operations and would be very difficult to replace (which also means he’s under a lot of pressure and likely struggling with burnout). And when he’s sober, his work is great. But as his alcohol use has gotten worse, he’s become increasingly unreliable. My team works with him regularly and aren’t able to get the answers they need from him promptly, or in some cases at all. He’s also become rude and will respond to serious work questions with non sequiturs and fart jokes. At least one of the jokes he’s made that I know about qualifies as sexual harassment, and while the recipient laughed it off, it’s not okay.

Our only HR person is great but she’s an office admin who has absorbed HR duties and has no experience dealing with difficult personnel matters. She’s aware that his behavior is getting worse but isn’t sure how to address it beyond implementing a “no alcohol in the office” policy. Previously, we would have beers on Fridays, and most people would have one or two, but Sterling and a few others would get too drunk to be productive. None of the other people in that category have had any issues since the no alcohol policy went into effect.

We don’t have an EAP, but our health insurance includes mental health and substance abuse treatment. So he has options available if he decides to get help, but he hasn’t done that on his own.

I’m concerned about Sterling personally and I have a direct stake in this from a work perspective as my team isn’t getting what they need from him. I have a pretty good relationship with Cyril, but I’m not sure to approach him about it. I also talk regularly with Cyril’s manager and have a good relationship with my own manager, so those are options. But Cyril’s manager is currently focused on a very important deadline that’s three weeks away and my own manager is dealing with some challenging family stuff so I want to take those situations into account.

I guess my question is, who do I talk to about this, and how do I broach the subject?

Who to talk to depends on what your own job is. If you’re a manager yourself and roughly at the same level as Sterling’s boss, Cyril, go ahead and talk to Cyril yourself. If you’re senior to Cyril, and especially if Cyril is a newer or not terribly skilled manager, talk to Cyril’s boss instead. But if you’re junior to him, you’d probably need to take this to your own manager instead.

As for what to say, be straightforward and lay it all out: “I’m concerned about Sterling. Several times a week, he comes to work smelling like alcohol or complains about how hung over he is. When he’s sober, his work is great. But his alcohol use seems to have increased, and he’s becoming increasingly unreliable. My team isn’t able to get the answers we need from him promptly, or sometimes at all. He has also started responding to serious work questions with non sequiturs, fart jokes, and in at least one case a really inappropriate sexual joke. I’m concerned about him as a person because he seems to be struggling, but I’m also concerned from a work perspective because my team can’t get we need from him and he’s becoming rude and disruptive in the office.”

Note here that you’re focusing on specific behaviors as much as possible. You’re mention the alcohol use to put it in context, but your main focus is on the specific problems he’s causing.

I hear you about being concerned that Sterling has a specialized skill set that would be hard to replace — but that’s all the more reason to address and try to fix this now before he flames out entirely, which it sounds like he’s on his way to doing if someone doesn’t intervene.

Plus, people leave jobs. Your company’s got to be prepared to deal with that when it happens, because it will happen at some point. In the meantime, you can’t let fear of losing someone prevent you from addressing what sound like serious problems.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 135 comments… read them below }

    1. Quill*

      Well, being drunk and crass does seem like a thing that goes on in Archer’s workplace. :)

      (Also I would not assume that “Lana” was okay with the joke just because it was laughed off, but that’s a digression since the provided script already addresses that.)

    2. JJJJShabado*

      Same. Sterling is really heading to the Danger Zone here. I think Alison’s advice is very good.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Me too, at first, but Cyril is also an Archer character and Sterling Archer is a huge drunk.

  1. Observer*

    I want to point something out – You say that Sterling’s role is extremely important to the company so you don’t want to lose him. But, as Alison points out, you’re on your way to losing him / his work anyway. In fact, I think she understates it a bit. You are ALREADY having trouble getting work out of him.

    Also, no matter HOW good someone is that their work, if they do things that expose a company to a lawsuit that the company would lose, or create so much trouble that it reduces overall productivity or causes the company to lose good staff, they are not as valuable as everyone would like to believe. If that person truly has an absolutely irreplaceable skill set that is crucial to your company, it’s time to re-engineer your process.

    1. Legal Beagle*

      Also – as always in these situations – being forced to deal with Sterling’s obnoxious behavior is off-putting to other valuable employees and may drive them to leave your company. Especially if it looks like management is allowing it to happen. You can’t afford to ignore this problem, on many levels.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Yup. Especially for me the SH “joke” even if not directed at me would require the company dealing with it. Me having to hear it would make me feel harassed and I would file a formal complaint. That they never addressed it…I’m already gone.

        1. JSPA*

          “that I know about” ≠ “that I heard with my own two ears.”

          If hearsay, it’s not actionable for its effect on OP, even if OP were offended. I mean, possibly it would be against the intermediate source, depending on the delivery and purpose of repeating it (but equally likely not, and certainly not if it was repeated to report it).

          “Someone mentioned that someone else said something to yet third person, and knowing that thing was said offends me, if it indeed was said in the way it’s reported to have been said, which I can’t actually prove”… not gonna fly.

      2. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        People leave jobs because of bad managers and they also leave when they see unproductive toxic co-workers not being dealt with. This company stands to lose more than just one “vital” worker. A lot of collateral damage can happen as well.

    2. NW Mossy*

      Another point to consider: is the assessment of Sterling’s skills accurate? By the OP’s account, he’s in his mid-20s, which is very early in one’s career to have developed the sort of skills normally described as irreplaceable, like deep institution knowledge and/or technical expertise. If it’s possible for Sterling to have achieved this status in what’s likely to be 5 years or less post-college, it’s likely there are others out there that can replace a significant portion of his value.

      I ask because the same argument was made at my company about a teammate who exhibited similar issues – a high performer when sober, but too often hung over to be relied upon to do the work consistently. In some ways, he struggled to adjust his lifestyle to the fact that his responsibilities were no longer his own education, but rather those of a working professional. Finally, after breaking his PIP agreement by calling off hung over after a PTO day for the fourth or fifth time, he was fired. Our team survived just fine, and his replacement ended up being an amazing hire despite not having the direct experience her predecessor did.

      Time for Cyril to learn to manage. He can do so with compassion for Sterling, but Sterling’s problems aren’t fitting under the rug Cyril’s trying to sweep them under.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        I think that you’re going to need some kind of backup for Sterling, or at least train someone else in doing some of his work.

      2. Ray Gillette (OP)*

        He’s genuinely good for his level of experience, which is around 5 years. It’s more that he has a fairly rare, niche specialty that’s hard to come by. Most working professionals with any experience in this skill set are snapped up quickly by larger companies than us, and it can be hard to entice them to leave. The company has already been actively recruiting for this specialty to grow the team, not replace Sterling, and has had a hard time sourcing good candidates who are even willing to listen to our recruiters.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You might need to pay more! What your recruiters are finding sounds like the compensation isn’t in line with the market.

          Re: Sterling, think of it this way: If you hadn’t hired him yet and you were told “there’s a guy with the skill set you need but he’s going to come to work drunk or smelling like alcohol, complain about how hung over he is, be generally unreliable, and respond to people with fart jokes and sexual comments” — would you want to hire him, even with the tight market for his skill? I’m betting you wouldn’t.

          1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

            I think you are completely right! I wish it was my call to make. The bright spot is that my manager responded well and there’s a long-term plan in place.

  2. Alex*

    Is not being able to call in sick for being hung over common? I know it shouldn’t fly regularly like would probably happen her but if you cannot perform at your best and do it sparingly, it would make sense.

    1. CaliCali*

      Thing is that falling ill with a virus isn’t a self-inflicted malady, but being hung over is — and furthermore, TELLING people that’s what you’re doing is not going to go over well. Drinking is no crime, but you’re generally expected to not be regularly hung over at work.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        Yes, I think the TMI disclosure is the problem here. It’s enough to simply report being ill. I think the bit about something being self-inflicted is a red herring. If someone comes down with a stomach problem because the chicken they made for dinner was slightly undercooked, that’s arguably self-inflicted. But it’s still reasonable to call in sick because of it.

        1. Perse's Mom*

          That’s not a great comparison unless you’re intentionally undercooking your chicken. If you prefer food analogies, this is more (imo) like someone with a food sensitivity knowing that cake on Sunday night is going to result in a truly miserable Monday for them but eating it anyway. Every Sunday. And then complaining, every Monday, about how that cake was such a bad idea.

    2. FloralsForever*

      I mean… I would never say I was hungover. But the point is that this is a regular occurrence, and something a lot of people believe Sterling should be able to control. Sick leave is typically for something that is out of your control. That’s not to say that people don’t do it, but where I’m from, even in the “lax” Silicon valley (that I would say is more rigid in certain ways), you would just say you got a stomach bug or a family thing or something.

    3. gbca*

      In a normal functioning workplace with responsible adults, it shouldn’t really be a thing that comes up. People can be trusted to just tell their boss that they are under the weather and that’s that. If you happen to be feeling like crap because you’re hung over, that’s not really your boss’s business. Of course, that’s all assuming the person in question is being responsible and it’s a rare occurrence.

      I’m assuming this came up because Sterling had called in sick more than once and shared with Cyril that it was because he was hung over.

    4. Washi*

      I would totally call in sick rather than coming to work hungover (I assume – I’ve never had a hangover!)

      But I would never say I was hungover, I would just say I was under the weather or whatever. To me it’s less important that it’s self-inflicted and more important that it’s pretty rare – maybe a few times a year max. Just like mental health days or staying home after you overdid it on exercise or whatever; just make sure you aren’t putting an undue burden on your team and being discrete about why you need to stay home.

      1. Spreadsheets and Books*

        Eh, hangovers occur on a sliding scale, from mildly annoying to virtually incapacitating. In most cases, the headache and nausea bit usually fades within the first few hours, and most people would probably rather take some ibuprofen and power through than waste a sick day.

        I’ve definitely felt worse for wear the morning after a team Christmas party or something but never to the point of feeling incapable of showing up at work.

      2. Tisiphone*

        I’ve never had a hangover, either. The worst self-inflicted feeling poorly usually comes after overdoing something like stage combat, martial arts, or workouts. I’ll take mental health days, too, but those can be scheduled in advance. We have a generous time off policy and we lose what we don’t use.

      3. lasslisa*

        Honestly as a rare drinker I probably wouldn’t even connect the dots. “Ugh, I feel awful, my head hurts – is this a migraine? Oh, wow, nausea. No way am I going to work today.” And then suddenly, mysteriously feeling better in the afternoon and wondering if I just imagined it all.

      4. tamarack and fireweed*

        I agree with those who point out that taking time off for a self-inflicted illness is a red herring. People do it all the time — injury during skiing, injury from an accident you caused, measles even though a free vaccine was available, food poisoning from one’s own potato salad etc. etc. — and time-off is quite appropriate when there’s a medical incapacity. But, for example, it would be quite appropriate for a manager to take aside an employee who is into endurance racing and saying “Listen, three times after your last four ultra-marathons you called in sick the day you were supposed to be back at work because you needed to recover. Granted, once was because you injured your hamstrings and were at the hospital getting checked out, but it seems to me that when you take time off for sporting competitions, you need to pencil in one more day for recovery.” (And then maybe offer to handle this flexibly.)

        Which also highlights the difference to the OP’s case. A debilitating hangover isn’t the same as needing rest after an enjoyable feat of striving to surpass your body’s physical performance limitations. Especially if it isn’t a once-every-four-years event of the better part of a country experiencing a spike of mystery “flu” the day after some big world championship game. It looks like the drinking itself is a far larger medical problem, possibly addiction, possibly mental-health related (and likely both).

    5. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      Once in a while is fine (we don’t need to explain why we’re sick when calling in), but Sterling is hung over multiple times a week.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        Does your company have a lax attendance policy, or does he actually have enough sick leave to cover calling in that much? I doubt you know the answer if it’s the latter since you’re not his manager, but it’s a stand-out question for me.

        1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

          Our sick leave policy isn’t great but we’re relatively forgiving when it comes to flex time and working remotely if you otherwise got stuff done. He used to manage, but lately he’s not.

    6. Meh*

      Last time one of my coworkers called in sick, they straight up told our supervisor the next day it was because they were hungover from a family event on Sunday. Supervisor didn’t seem to care but it seems like a pretty lame reason to me.

    7. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I think that the problem with Sterling isn’t that he did it once or twice, it’s that he was probably calling in hungover multiple times in a relatively short space of time. And most companies do have a policy around medical leave that allows them to talk to a person about their call-in frequency once they’ve used a certain number of sick days in a certain time frame. So if he’d used up a week’s worth of sick days over the course of a couple of months, it would be pretty reasonable for his boss to say “hey, this is happening a lot and you can’t call in sick so often over it.”

      So yeah, if you misjudge your alcohol consumption when your out of town friends are visiting for the weekend and it’s a one-time deal, go ahead and call in sick. But if it happens several times a month, that’s something your boss is within their rights to talk to you about.

    8. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yeah it’s one of those things that is pretty much fine if it’s used sparingly. I have done it a handful of times over the years because celebrations got taken to extremes. Waking up and not being able to actually go to work was a huge wakeup call about watching myself.

      My functioning alcoholic family members are also well aware that they cannot even have a beer with a friend at lunch before they go to work [night shift life], sadly not everyone has that kind of ability =( Just like how he can’t stop at just one or two for Friday beers, so that’s what’s really screaming at me here.

    9. Emily K*

      Nthing everyone above – I think it’s more like, you shouldn’t really be too hungover to work on a work morning more than once in a blue moon. I wouldn’t make a blanket department-wide rule about not calling in sick when hungover – Nov 9 2016 was a rough morning for a lot of us – but I could definitely see having a conversation with one person who was calling in sick due to hangover at a disruptive volume/frequency and telling that person they couldn’t do it anymore, in the hopes that once the safety net of, “Oh, if I feel hungover tomorrow I’ll just call in sick,” was taken away they would stop getting so drunk on worknights as to not be able to work the next day.

    10. Mid*

      I wouldn’t say hungover, ever, in a work setting. I have called out (from a student-worker job, where I was very ahead on my work) sick, and that illness was indeed a hangover, but I didn’t tell my bosses that, and they didn’t ask.

    11. we're basically gods*

      I would imagine it’s okay if it’s rare. Taking alcohol out of the equation, because it’s a fraught topic, I’ve had to call out after going to a convention because I was so exhausted after all the walking and peopling. I did this once, citing oncoming con crud as my issue.
      But I recognize that it’s on me to manage my own energy levels when I go to cons on the weekends, so it would reflect poorly on my responsibility and dedication if I called out after every event.

      1. MillenialAnon*

        I schedule myself an extra vacation day after cons so I have time to recover. But then again, I’m usually volunteering for the con, and taking time off anyway so I can be there Thursday and Friday.

    12. LGC*

      Speaking for myself: I’m okay with the VERY rare call out for being hung over. Life happens! (Although, much like the cat LW from earlier today, I’d rather not have the details.) This doesn’t mean that you should do it – but if you’re genuinely unable to work, then it’s better that you call out. Even if it’s because of a bottle of Patrón.

      My read is that Cyril is tired of Sterling’s shenanigans, but isn’t aware just how bad he really is.

    13. QoB*

      When I’m hungover, as well as being tired and headachey, I also vomit A LOT so I promise no-one would want me at work… I agree it’s (a) telling people that’s why you’re sick and (b) the frequency of it.

  3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    When you talk to someone, I would focus first and foremost on his work issues. You can comment on what you know first hand (not what you’ve heard from others) about his drinking affecting his abilities, but I’m not sure making the drinking the highlight of the conversation is the best idea. I get that you’re personally concerned for him, but his drinking habits are not really anyone’s business, except in how they’re affecting his ability to do his job. And I’m not trying to be unsympathetic here. You can always offer your support on a personal level too after dealing with the work situation.

    1. Observer*

      I agree. I think that Alison is right that it needs to be mentioned as context. But having said that, the main focus is the fact that he’s not getting his job done.

    2. JSPA*

      that’s why the focus on alcohol goes exactly as far as reportable fact: “he complains about hangovers often” and “he calls in sick for hangovers with increasing frequency” and “he smells of alcohol.” Not, “I have decided this surely means he’s not only drinking too much but has become an alcoholic since coming here.”

      If he’s regularly spilling alcohol over himself rather than having it on his breath, or if he has a rare health condition that makes him smell like alcohol, or if he actually could stop anytime he likes, but doesn’t care to, or if his alcoholism has been well-established since high school, or if he’s being abducted by aliens and pickled, or if someone else is pouring it down him as part of a particularly destructive, secret master-slave relationship, all that’s private / personal. Avoid theorizing what, why and how, and stick to the barest of bare fact.

      1. juliebulie*

        “if someone else is pouring it down him as part of a particularly destructive, secret master-slave relationship” I can’t wait to read this letter, coming soon to AAM!

        But seriously: I agree that the alcohol shouldn’t be the centerpiece of the complaint. Neither should it be left out. Even if Cyril’s deadline is three weeks away, I don’t think this should wait. I’d be a little worried that in 2.5 weeks, Cyril will need something from Sterling in a hurry and be blindsided by fart jokes.

      2. Ms. Alex*

        I’m silent-laughing at my desk almost to tears at the idea of being abducted by aliens and pickled. Thank you for a much-needed (for me) moment of levity!

    3. Camellia*

      This. I would not lead with the comments about alcohol or hang-overs, I would lead with the facts that you are not able to get what you need from him for your work. Once you have spelled that out, the boss may be able to make the connection on his own. If not, or if he asks you for reasons, then you can mention the drinking issues.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes by just talking about what we see at work is enough to get the person thinking about what they are doing at home. Stuff can go this way. You address one thing and the person figures it out on their own that the problem has many sides to consider working on.

      Some people do pick up the ball and run with. Others do not. Sadly we don’t get to pick who does what and it can be heartbreaking to watch a person defeat their own selves.

  4. Eleven*

    This might be splitting hairs, but it sounds like he has a recently developed binge-drinking problem rather than seasoned alcoholism. All the alcoholics I’ve worked with didn’t ever complain about being hungover because they knew that kind of behavior wasn’t appropriate for the workplace/they didn’t want to draw attention to that fact. Doesn’t mean that they never showed up hungover (they quite often did), but they definitely didn’t stand around in the break room and kvetch about it. LW said that it’s escalated recently, which might suggest that it’s circumstantial or related to some event in Sterling’s life. Either way, dude definitely needs help.

    1. CaliCali*

      I think the hair-splitting can sometimes be good in reframing it mentally — whether he has an addiction or not, it’s immaterial. He’s still ABUSING alcohol, and it’s causing problems at work, and that’s what needs to be addressed.

    2. Observer*

      I hear what you are saying. But I think that focusing on this is actually counter-productive. The OP knows there is a problem and they are concerned about Sterling. So far so good. However, getting into the details of what exactly the issue is start getting into territory neither they, nor the boss, have any standing to address. The issue here is that his work and behavior are becoming a real problem.

    3. Holly*

      I don’t think it’s appropriate to judge whether or not someone is “not really an alcoholic” from LW’s post. Regardless, it is alcohol abuse impacting his work and needs to be addressed.

    4. remizidae*

      All addiction is circumstantial and related to events in people’s lives. Anyway, the theoretical distinction you’re trying to draw between addiction and substance abuse isn’t really relevant to the advice.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Nah. It can go in all sorts of directions. My alcoholic family members are also able to stop drinking for a few days at a time as well. Whereas another alcoholic colleague of mine gave themselves actual brain damage trying to detox themselves after being that steadily intoxicated for a few years.

      It’s a disease and there are variables all over the place. Some people play the “Well I never get a hangover” game and others seemingly enjoy wallowing in their misery while suffering from the effects of a bender. There’s no one-size-fits all for any illness! So I wouldn’t get into this kind of thinking and just see he has a serious problem.

      1. Dana B.S.*

        ^Exactly! I worked in a substance abuse treatment facility and saw all kinds of patients. Some would have seizures while detoxing. Others were just shaky and eating sugar 24/7. Others were more or less fine when sober.

        Overall, none of us or LW should be speculating about if Sterling is an alcoholic.

    6. Licensed addiction clinical professional*

      Hi all! Making this type of determination is my full-time job. I’m here to agree with all the other commenters that these distinctions about his drinking problem are neither relevant to the OP’s role in the situation, nor something that OP or his colleagues are in a position to do anyway.

      As an aside, re the hangover thing: many with severe alcohol problems are never hung over because they never actually get to 0 BAC. In the morning, they still have a BAC from the previous night, and by the time they’d be dipping too low (and go into withdrawal) they are drinking again the following day.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have read stories of drinkers in jail, even after a couple days they were still drunk. But no booze was brought into the jail for them.

  5. VERYAnonymous*

    I feel like this is someone else from my company writing about a coworker of ours in a VERY similar situation. It very likely isn’t. I’m really glad someone wrote in this question

  6. Ray Gillette (OP)*

    OP here! I’m a manager who reports to a department head, and Cyril is also a department head. I sent my letter to Alison a few weeks ago but decided this was too important to wait on, so I have already spoken with my own manager about this. I laid it out for him pretty much how I did in my letter. He knew Sterling has been a problem for some time, but wasn’t aware of quite how bad it had gotten. He told me that the company has already been planning to bring more managerial oversight to Cyril’s department but in light of this he’s going to advocate for moving up the timeline there.

    Cyril himself is the Peter Principle in action – he’s a very senior technical expert who got promoted to leadership because someone well-meaning but clueless assumed that was the appropriate way to reward him for being good at his job. He’s very good at everything about this other than managing people, which he deals with by not managing them. My concern with regards to Sterling’s skill set is partially about me not wanting to lose him, but it’s also a fear that Cyril won’t fire him no matter how bad he gets because Cyril doesn’t want to go through the hassle of hiring a replacement.

    1. WellRed*

      So, they are not going to address it directly with Sterling, but wait until they have more oversight of Cyril?

      1. sacados*

        I read it as, they are going to bring in someone else (in place of / alongside Cyril) to be on site and help actually manage Sterling since Cyril is not doing that part of the job sufficiently.

        1. Aurion*

          That’s all well and good, but onboarding a new manager/department head takes time (post an opening, interviewing, hiring, getting them up to speed). In the meanwhile, Sterling is already in a downward spiral; he needs to be managed/coached, and fast.

      2. Ray Gillette (OP)*

        I’m not privy to immediate next steps, but I’m not sure I should be. Even though it affects me and my team, it’s still a disciplinary matter for another department. I didn’t ask my manager for a comprehensive action plan, but I suspect he spoke with Cyril or Cyril’s manager. Sterling is still as unreliable as ever, but I haven’t seen or heard evidence of further inappropriate jokes since our conversation.

        1. BethRA*

          True you shouldn’t be privy to immediate next steps, but if Sterling continues to be unreliable (and reek of alcohol, and come into work hung over), it’s reasonable to report that to your manager.

    2. Observer*

      It’s good that your boss is on the ball here. Hopefully the additional managerial oversight will understand what Alison (and other commenters) have pointed out, about the idea that you can’t let a bad employee hold you hostage because of their skills.

      Lots of luck with this!

      We’d love to hear an update as this situation unfolds.

    3. Viette*

      “it’s also a fear that Cyril won’t fire him no matter how bad he gets because Cyril doesn’t want to go through the hassle of hiring a replacement”

      On the one hand, I completely understand this, and his behavior will probably get worse before it gets fully addressed in any case. On the other hand, I have recent experience with an alcoholic coworker (who no one knew was an alcoholic for a while; he was just increasingly unreliable, unpleasant, and bizarre), and though some alcoholics hit their stride, as it were, and maintain their work enough to keep their job, the reality is that this kind of worsening substance abuse is just as (or more) likely to result in Sterling flaming out in ways no one can ignore or work around. Not showing up to work at all for a week, not *doing* any work while there, outrageous interpersonal behavior (screaming in meetings, alienating clients, sleeping all day), breaking work equipment while drunk, etc. Cyril may not want to hire someone else, but your description of Sterling is of someone with an unstable, escalating problem. It can seem like it’s dragging on forever as he maintains a level of unreliable half-function, but if behind the scenes things are getting worse and worse for him, one last bad thing can tip it over — a DUI, financial problems, a breakup — and things can get out of control fast.

      I hope it never gets to that point, and that your bosses can intervene in a meaningful way and Sterling is ready to get help.

    4. CatCat*

      but it’s also a fear that Cyril won’t fire him no matter how bad he gets because Cyril doesn’t want to go through the hassle of hiring a replacement.

      How does Cyril feel about going through the hassle of hiring replacements of people who quit because they don’t want to be around the hot mess that is Sterling’s life right now?

      1. Wintermute*

        not to mention “how does Cyril feel about having someone– on paper– who is an expert in whatever Sterling is an expert in, but in actual reality hasn’t produced any usable work product in a month?”

        At that point you’re still at the same end-point, there is no expert work being performed.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m glad that you got the ball rolling so that this can be handled by those who are in charge of this kind of thing.

      The escalating that you’ve described reeks of someone who is going so far off the rails that it may not be a question of “if” you have to replace him, it’s a question of “when” you’ll have to replace him. Between his work product slipping and being unreliable, he’s advancing in his disease and shows no signs of changing that, it just keeps getting worse [which in some cases is a cry for help as well, so I’m glad that it’s not being stuffed under the rug like others in the organization may prefer]. This is the sort of person who will possibly start getting into legal trouble [DUI or public intoxication] and further destroying their lives.

      This is an awful place to be stuck in because it’s a professional relationship and there’s only so much you can do in that regard. It’s exhausting to watch and still need to focus on work at the same time, it’s unfair to everyone involved and I hope that they find out a solution sooner rather than later for everyone’s collective well being.

    6. LCL*

      Yes, Cyril basically handled it like one of the boys, and told Sterling to maintain. Sterling isn’t maintaining very well. I’m glad you spoke to your manager. I don’t see anything in your post about plans to actually deal with Sterling and tell him to sober up and point him in the direction of treatment, but that is outside of your responsibilities.

  7. Properlike*

    It is good to get this on the radar now, and on management’s radar. Most of all, it is not on you or anyone else in the office to enable Sterling to continue his alcohol abuse while on the job – be aware he may start to try to pull people in “on his side” to vouch for him when he has problems. This happened to a family member of mine at her company, and it led to a lot of guilt when the employee who abused alcohol was fired.

  8. Mr M*

    Back in the bad old days (as when you could smoke at your desk), there was an engineer who got drunker & drunker as the day went on. We were all more curious than alarmed and finally discovered he was hiding his bottle in a toilet tank…

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      We had someone hide beer in the toilet tank, so that is a thing that happens. This was in somewhat recent years.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It’s already icy cold and isolated in the tank! It’s just like putting your beers in the creek when you go camping because there’s no room in the ice chest.

          1. Zombeyonce*

            Off topic, but when I was little I didn’t understand that was the reason for putting beer in the water and just though the grownups wanted the fish to be a part of the fun, too.

    2. Jamie*

      Going back further in time, I remember going to my dad’s office and he had one of those giant green glass cut ashtrays on his desk (the 70’s were an ugly time) and a bottle of bourbon in his drawer.

      Functional alcoholics can be very hard to deal with since they keep pointing to their functioning as proof that they’ve got it under control.

    3. Mid*

      I rationally know that’s not a gross/contamination issue, because the tank is the “unused” water, but oh man that makes me squeamish.

      1. Deranged Cubicle Owl*

        Same here. I think it is just the associating with the toilet.
        But frankly, I never understood the appeal when i saw this on television in (older) films and series.

    4. Chaordic One*

      Ooh! We had a similar situation with a lady and it took a long time to figure out how she was getting the booze into the office. Her boss searched her desk several times looking for evidence but could never find anything. Eventually someone figured out that she was using a hypodermic needle to inject vodka into the oranges in her lunch.

      1. Massmatt*

        Now THAT is some ingenious thinking!

        Though I wonder still how she could inject enough or eat enough vodka oranges to get drunk? And wouldn’t they smell?

  9. blackcatlady*

    I am a recovering alcoholic. Over 19 years sober! An alcoholic is someone who can’t put down the damn glass. Denial is HUGE for someone abusing alcohol, either binge drinking or constant drinking. We will deny problems even when they are right in our face. Sterling may be using booze a crutch for other problems (stress, lonely, etc) but his drinking is impacting his work. If you or someone else at your work does bring this up with him, be prepared for denial, anger, bargaining: the whole range of emotions. It’s ultimately up to him to get sober and deal with his issues. I wish him luck.

      1. blackcatlady*

        Thank all of you for the kinds words. Wasn’t looking for personal praise but I wanted to let the OP and anyone else dealing with an alcoholic that it can be hard to make them face the problem. When you admit alcohol is a problem you really do go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. It is not easy but life is so much better now.

    1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      I did try speaking with Sterling directly before I wrote in to Alison, but I didn’t include that for length and because it didn’t really change the nature of my question. He’s still firmly in denial; told me that everything is fine and he’s not drinking that heavily or that frequently.

      Congrats on your sobriety – it’s always good to see a positive example of a person who is able to recover and do okay.

      1. MommyMD*

        Someone needs to speak to him who has the power of terminating his position if he doesn’t address the problem. And make it known that this is what will happen. An incidental conversation won’t help.

    2. Collywood*

      Agreed. I’m working on getting sober but it took me a long time to really commit to this path. Not sure if coworkers would have noticed, since I was part of a heavy drinking culture workplace, but people would notice at my current job. But it does sound like your coworker is struggling with alcohol. Lawyers have to take training about alcohol and drug abuse, so it may seem less weird to approach a coworker about this (it’s not less awkward, maybe just potentially seen as more reasonable to do). Someone may need to mention this is affecting his work. Very clearly.

  10. CatCat*

    Does Sterling drive to work?

    If so, there is a huge safety component to address here as well. I am not clear when you say he “smells of alcohol” if he is showing up to work drunk or buzzed. He could kill himself or someone else on his way to/from work.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Lot of heavy drinkers smell like booze “the day after” because it seeping out of their pores; it doesn’t mean the person is drunk right at that moment.

      1. PhyllisB*

        Right. My husband used to drink to the point of passing out (luckily only at home and he would NEVER drive while drinking.) One Sunday during Lent I was sitting next to him in church and I could smell it on him. I guess I had not noticed before because I drank too, but I had not had any alcohol during Lent and it made me notice the smell more. Now neither of us drink.

        1. MommyMD*

          Your husband is lucky to be alive and his blood alcohol level was a lot higher than you think it was.

      2. Chaordic One*

        Yes, I think you’re right about this. They might not have had a drink since the night before, when they over-indulged, and the next day they reek. I’ve known several alcoholics who are like this. (And they really get offended when you ask them if they’ve been drinking in the morning before they came to work.)

      3. Mongrel*

        Conversely you can still have alcohol in your system the morning after, more than enough to be over the blood alcohol limit for driving.

      4. MommyMD*

        Nevertheless it’s not right to show up for work smelling like that. It does affect their mental and physical health which affects their work; it’s been proven to affect recall and brain processing, and they still may have alcohol circulating through their bloodstream. Compare a similar hire who does not have these issues. Everyone can be replaced.

    2. LCL*

      But if he doesn’t have ‘that’ kind of a job, it’s not up to the work to address the safety issue of driving in to work still buzzed. And like Lily said, he may not even be drunk, just excreting alcohol, and possibly wearing last night’s clothes. That doesn’t stop anyone from calling the law if they think he is about to hit the road while intoxicated, but a busy police department won’t send someone out because a coworker believes they drink.

    3. Mid*

      That wouldn’t be a work issue/manager issue. That would be a law enforcement issue. If someone thinks he’s drunk while driving, then they should call the police, not tell their manager.

    4. CatCat*

      Wow, the responses that “it’s not the company’s problem” is surprising to me. When he mows down someone in the company’s parking lot, maybe then it will be their problem in more ways than one.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        There’s nothing at all the company can do. Unless they want to involve the cops and then the cops have to actually respond and give him a breathalyzer test.

        We have called the cops to report a known drunk driver and the response “Yeah…so we can’t actually do anything about it, unless a copy happens to be in the area and suspects they’re intoxicated.”

        Illegal activity in their parking lot isn’t their problem, they have insurance for liability but you’re not in control of someone. They didn’t serve him the liquor! Sometimes if you’re over served, yes the bartender/establishment can be held responsible but that’s really rare.

      2. Observer*

        You’re right that if he mows someone down in the parking lots, it’s going to be their problem. But what exactly are they supposed to do?

        It would be one thing if someone told him to go home because he’s drunk and didn’t offer to get him a taxi. But in this situation, there really is nothing they can do about it.

    5. MommyMD*

      Yep. Even if under the limit he could fall asleep. A hangover is all about alcohol toxicity.

  11. Kathlynn (Canada)*

    LW, you have my sympathy. I know many sort of functional alcoholics, and it’s hard to figure out what/when/how to say something. (in my case I don’t know them well enough to say anything. Just well enough to know how frequently they drink)

  12. agnes*

    stick to how the drinking is impacting the workplace and specific behaviors—he smells of alcohol, he complains about being hung over, he misses deadlines, etc. There is help out there if he wants it. the EAP can steer him to a lot of options.

  13. Food Sherpa*

    SAY SOMETHING!! I know, I was Sterling (or Mallory- love the Archer references, btw) I would be dead if my co-workers had not stepped up. It took getting my teaching credential getting revoked for me to understand I had a problem. The symptom was my drinking to self-medicate. I am on prescriptions now, and I have zero desire to drink. So, Say something for your own sanity and say something to help out another human who is obviously struggling. It is the humane thing to do.

    1. Anonny for this*

      Yep. 100% would be dead if a very similar thing hadn’t happened to me. It took getting fired for me to realize I had a problem and get help.

    2. Concerned*

      Agree with all of this. If it’s obviously an alcohol problem I don’t see the harm in mentioning that. Losing his job could be the wake-up call he needs. Alternatively, if he’s not in total denial and willing to get treatment I wonder if a leave of absence for treatment would be appropriate (if the company can do without him for a few months). Congrats on your recovery FoodSherpa!!!

      1. Food Sherpa*

        Thanks! And I’m an accountant now. I don’t miss being a teacher at all. My hat’s off to those of you who are.

  14. RainbowBrite*

    My coworker was taken off site to be tested for alcohol while at work one day because someone told HR he smelled like alcohol but the guy who had 8 convictions for CP got to stay around for months despite everyone who knew not being ok with working with him *grumble*

    Was the off site testing thing normal? He was fired immediately after because it proved he’d been drinking on the clock.

    1. LCL*

      He can always refuse to be tested, unless he is in one of ‘those’ classifications. And the company can always present it as, go with us right now to have a blood draw, or you are fired. Forced testing on suspicion of use is not the best approach to employee relations.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If you have a random drug and alcohol testing policy and it’s not illegal in your jurisdiction [it’s legal everywhere in the US that I’m aware of], then it’s completely legal to require it to return to work.

      You can always deny their request. Which results in the fact that you’ll be released from duties because you’re refusing to abide by the policy that you should have signed when first becoming employed.

      Convictions are only able to be used against people if they’re in a line of work that works directly with children or in healthcare where they’re around people considered to be vulnerable populations [elderly, cognitively disabled, etc.] So they may not have been able to “discriminate” against the person for his convictions, again depends on the jurisdiction! Our area has pretty strict laws to try to get former convicts into productive roles in society so that they are less likely to go back to jail. Once someone has done their sentence, they’re seen to be cleared and released back into society without that mark against them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Criminal possession? In other words, he had a lot of drugs with him when he got caught. I am just guessing, though.

        1. RainbowBrite*

          Yes, that’s what it was. The whole situation was a mess.

          Thanks, The Man, Becky Lynch!

  15. Specialist*

    First, I would like to thank all of the commenters here for their kind and thoughtful words. I really do find this fascinating.

    However, I am truly amazed that nobody has commented to Sterling directly. I would definitely have said something to him about having a busy day tomorrow, so go to bed early and don’t drink any alcohol. I would have also answered every hangover comment about not drinking so much, or drinking like a college kid, or some other similar statement. I find that you have amazing restraint.

    1. Baru Cormorant*

      I imagine a lot of people might do this, but I don’t think anyone would recommend it as a solution. I don’t think it would prompt any change in his behavior, it would just sound paternal and make him defensive. By focusing on bringing down the hammer from above based on Sterling’s work behavior, it’s more likely to stay away from making moral judgments.

    2. Grapey*

      OP said upthread that they did talk to Sterling directly and left it out of the letter.

      “I did try speaking with Sterling directly before I wrote in to Alison, but I didn’t include that for length and because it didn’t really change the nature of my question. He’s still firmly in denial; told me that everything is fine and he’s not drinking that heavily or that frequently.”

    3. Observer*

      The OP did say that they spoke to Sterling. But to be honest, I really don’t think that what you are proposing is a viable path. Saying something to him ONCE, sure. Beyond that? The OP is not his manager nor his parent. And even his manager really can’t manage his life like that.

      But, the manager SHOULD be managing, which he’s not. That’s not restraint. It’s covering your face and hoping that that means the problem is gone.

  16. ceiswyn*

    “Plus, people leave jobs. Your company’s got to be prepared to deal with that when it happens, because it will happen at some point. In the meantime, you can’t let fear of losing someone prevent you from addressing what sound like serious problems.”
    This needs to be printed on something and hung around most workplaces.
    I have worked in a number of offices where there was an Expert who was difficult to work with but couldn’t be fired because he (almost always he) was so necessary. In all cases, the Expert left anyway. The company did not collapse upon his departure. In fact, it often became apparent that he hadn’t been as necessary as expected, and in fact the area of his expertise was often improved by someone new taking it over and redoing it to require less specialist expertise. All that the appeasement did was make everyone unhappy for longer.

    1. Wintermute*

      Plus, when someone is truly a problem like this, you can end up in a position where you have an expert on paper, but the reality is they’re producing any usable work anyway, so they might as well not even be there.

  17. MommyMD*

    Everyone is replaceable, even Sterling. It’s never acceptable to come to any job smelling like a stale brewery and perpetually hung over. He should be given one and only one chance to clean up his act or get booted.

  18. Concerned*

    I know you don’t have a EAP, but would he be eligible for FMLA to enter recovery? I agree with focusing on the work issues primarily, but it may be worth giving him the option for some kind of leave of absence if he seems open to addressing to alcohol issue (you would really have to follow his lead regarding how much detail he wants to go into about the medical stuff). If he’s a good asset, giving him the opportunity to attend a recovery program might be worth it.

    Question for the crowd – for companies/industries without formal EAPs, are there EAP-type services / programs that are available? Like a contract HR person who can help people navigate medical/occupational issues, or a service you can offer employees who may need mental health/substance use help? It would suck to lose an employee who could be effectively handled by an EAP.

  19. EvilQueenRegina*

    Story of my ex coworker, who I’ll call Philomena. When she was hired, her manager was aware that she was a recovering alcoholic, but had been in recovery for a few years at the time. She was of on sick leave for a few weeks following being mugged, and some family circumstances, and after this started drinking again.

    There were lots of times when she would be late or not show up at all, with implausible excuses such as a broken foot which she was then running on faster than would be medically possible. Sometimes she didn’t even offer an explanation. Sometimes she would show up slurring and smelling of alcohol – she was sent home more than once. She called in sick and was seen on the same days buying alcohol. Our manager Katrina took no obvious action. We’d have her family ringing work to see if she was showing up because they couldn’t reach her. There were lots of things that either were done badly or not at all because of this.

    Sympathy towards her was stronger from those who were least affected by having to cover her workload/fix her mistakes/getting shouted at by angry callers over things she hadn’t done. People did used to say things like “I know we shouldn’t really be angry with Philomena; Katrina just isn’t handling it.” Rumours went around that Philomena had something on Katrina and that’s why Katrina wasn’t handling it – no idea how true that was.

    At one point she just stopped showing up to work. After six months of this, Katrina informed us that “Philomena isn’t coming back” (not clear whether she quit or was let go).

    A few months down the line I left that job and moved to a different team where I was working with Philomena’s sister in law. After a year in the new job, I found out from the sister in law that Philomena had died alone at home.

    I wonder now whether things would have been different if Katrina had taken more action. I don’t know how aware our grandboss was of the situation – but Katrina had kicked off when grandboss was directly approached about an unrelated matter in her absence once, so no one dared go to him. I feel now we should have.

  20. Milton’s Red Swingline*

    Sterling is probably bored stiff and alone at home with the walls caving in. Maybe he got a ”Dear Sterling” letter or just an update on facebook his ex is now with someone else. He needs a hobby, or something… of course it is ”not your responsibility”, but how about tackling the cause of the drinking and not the effect that is the drinking? Sterling for you lot seems not to be a human being, he is just a replaceable resource for a project. I’ve worked out of a suitcase long enough I know exactly how Sterling feels, and I’ve seen this happen to a lot of people. Sterling needs a buddy and being included in whatever clicques there are. Otherwise talking with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam is his only respite.

    1. Observer*

      Actually there are a LOT of ways to deal with boredom other than drinking and hanging out with office mates after hours.

      The idea that the OP can actually resolve the problem is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. The idea that Streling’s alcohol problem is the OP’s fault is equally nonsensical and totally useless.

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