update: I think my coworker is an alcoholic

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker (Sterling) was an alcoholic, kept coming to work smelling like alcohol, whose work was becoming more unreliable, and whose manager (Cyril) hadn’t done anything to address the problem? Here’s the update.

Sterling is gone. This might not be surprising to you or the readers, as he was a ticking time bomb, but my larger concern was more about the institutional problems that allowed him to reach the point he reached in the first place.

I had already spoken to my own manager before my letter was published and pretty much laid it out for him like I did in the letter. He was aware that Sterling was a problem, but wasn’t aware of how bad he’d gotten.

I’m a manager who reports to a department head, and Cyril was also a department head. Cyril is a very senior technical expert with no prior experience in managing people. He was promoted by well-meaning executives who didn’t realize that being able to do a job isn’t the same as being able to manage people doing that job. The reason this went unnoticed for as long as it did is that the majority of his team were self-starters who didn’t need much oversight, so while the work was disorganized, it did mostly get done.

Since my letter ran, there have been substantial changes at the company. The biggest is that Cyril is no longer a department head. The executive suite finally recognized that he wasn’t an effective leader and brought in someone with extensive leadership experience for the kind of work we’re doing to be the new department head. They also brought in an operational manager on my level who handles the day to day. Some of the team who previously enjoyed their independence chafed at first, but they’ve adapted. On my part, I think she’s fantastic and we already have a great working relationship.

Cyril is back to being a senior technical expert working on complicated technical problems and seems much happier now. The pinch of Sterling being gone has been minimal because with the management responsibilities off his plate, Cyril has been able to absorb the majority of the work he was doing. We do still need to hire more people with the highly coveted skill set, but for now we’re managing pretty well.

Ultimately I think this was the best of the possible realistic outcomes. On a personal level, I hope Sterling takes it as a wake up call to get the help he needs. On a professional level, I feel much more confident in the company as a whole that they were willing and able to make the kind of substantial institutional changes to keep a situation like this from getting out of hand in the future.

{ 75 comments… read them below }

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I’m guessing the OP either wants to protect Sterling’s privacy or doesn’t know. Both of which are good reasons not to share.

      1. Observer*

        Good points. To be honest, what I really want to know is not the gory details, but what role Sterling’s departure played in the much needed management changes. If the OP knows, this could probably be shared without divulging too much about Sterling that wasn’t in the original letter.

        1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

          These changes were already in the works as Cyril was also an ineffective manager in other ways, but I suspect that the Sterling problem moved up the timeline.

      2. Quill*

        Possible that after the last time a letter had a lot of details about a writer’s colleague’s medical issues Allison decided to pare it down to the work-relevant details.

    2. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      I just posted below – he was fired after the new manager took appropriate steps. As to what happened after he departed, I don’t feel right sharing.

      1. LittleRedRiding...huh?*

        I find that very interesting, because where I’m from (Germany) alcoholism is considered an illness and therefore the employer has to do everything they can to get the employee”rehabilitated” i.e. detox, GP, therapy, before they’re able to fire them.

        1. RabbitRabbit*

          Alcoholism is apparently covered in the US under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), but if so, the employee would have to be proactive in reaching out for assistance, rather than hoping the employer will do so for them. In addition, any job accomodations would have to be acceptable to the employer and adhered to by the employee – so if Sterling failed to follow any of those requirements, he’d still be fireable.

          1. LittleRedRiding...huh?*

            Wow, that’s awful and so sad. So once you’re no longer “useful” you get kicked to the curb?

            1. Kate*

              My German colleague went through a whole bevy of medical tests before she could get off her probation at her German federal government job— including a mental health test.

              So this is definitely not unique to the US.

                1. Fikly*

                  If whatever they were testing for would not prevent her from carrying out her duties, it’s incredibly discrimminatory. It’s also essentially forcing disclosure.

                2. Blue Anne*

                  Fikly – when I lived in the UK (which I believe is… was… bound to much the same EU work regulations as Germany) I had to disclose any medications I was taking as part of the hiring process at a Big 4 accounting firm. I was very nervous about doing so because I was taking anti-anxiety medication, and was in talk therapy, and the work was stressful and required travel. But it was about making sure they were complying with the requirement that they provide for people with disabilities.

                  I had a quick phone call every 6 months with a doctor who confirmed that my anxiety wouldn’t interfere with my work if properly managed, HR made sure I was aware of the extensive EAP, and they even provided occupational health services who diagnosed me with dyslexia. I was given extra time for my accounting exams, both on the actual exam day and extra paid time off to study. (It turns out the real problem wasn’t dyslexia+anxiety, but ADHD.) It was incredibly supportive and no one but my manager ever knew what was up. There were other people with more visible disabilities in the office who were very well taken care of.

                  Those regulations aren’t all bad.

                3. Fikly*

                  Blue Anne – the issue isn’t whether you were discrimminated against, the issue is, can the regulations be used to discrimminate against people, and are they being used thusly.

                  In the US, it’s illegal to ask about any health conditions or mediations that do not impact job safety. So for example, you can ask truck drivers if they take medication that affects their ability to drive, but not people who work at a desk.

                  If they didn’t know you had a disability, how is the regulation about making sure they are complying? Is this regulation only in effect for people who have disclosed disabilities?

                  Otherwise, no, it’s not about protecting the employee, it’s about forcing disclosure and protecting the employer from imagined risks. Because to force disclosure is to say that compliance with unasked for disability accommodations (which are, presumably, to benefit the individual) is more important than the individual’s right to privacy about their health conditions.

                  Individuals should be able to choose whether or not they want an accommodation more than they want privacy.

                  And yes, perhaps some people could do better at their jobs with accommodations that they won’t ask for. But it’s their right to perform not as well without accommodations, just as it’s anyone’s right to be lazy or any other trait that hampers job performance that isn’t a disability. They face the same consequences as anyone else, fewer promotions, less pay, maybe job loss, etc, but they have the right to choose those consequences.

            2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              It can and does happen but honestly, it’s not that common. I’ve had more places that would bend over backwards to keep an employee and work with them, even when they’re not subjected to following things like ADA requirements [read small employers] than ones who will throw someone away in the trash as soon as they’re deemed useless.

              Legally, yes it’s “at will”, yes you can be fired for not wearing pink on Wednesdays. Yes, we hear the worst stories here because it’s that kind of place, we talk about the worst and crazy workplaces! But most successful businesses don’t just want to be seen as somewhere that spits you out whenever they’re done with you. That’s some Oil Baron style nonsense that unions, anti-trust/monopolies laws, etc have crushed a lot of over the years.

              1. Fikly*

                I don’t know if you have any kind of illness or chronic health condition or disability.

                But if you don’t, you really can’t speak to the experiences of those that do. And even if you do, your experience is not necessarily the universal one.

        2. Observer*

          As @RabbitRabbit mentions, alcoholism is covered under the ADA. But, the ADA does NOT require that an employer accept the kind of behavior that Sterling displayed. Sterling would have to improve his behavior very quickly, or at least show that he was working on getting his problem under control while somewhat improving his behavior.

          1. JSPA*

            Yes; the protection involves not firing or otherwise discriminating against someone for “being an alcoholic.” Being untreated and out of control and destructive and unreliable and smelly are all distinct (and fire-able) issues. “Time away for treatment” is medical; “Time passed out or otherwise unfit to work when you’re expected at work” isn’t.

        3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          At my Job Sterling would have had trouble qualifying for EAP or ADA accommodations by the point OP had written in – but those protections are there at my job for people struggling with addiction issues. HR is very very explicit in the on-boarding process that if you have problems, come to them for help BEFORE you get in trouble on the job. There is help available, but it isn’t a get out of jail free card either.

          For my job the sort of accommodations they would grant would be things like some extra PTO to go to treatment sessions, pulling you off travel rotation for a while, and/or possibly a leave of absence for inpatient treatment – but all of that is predicated on the employee still meeting goals and not being a problem in the office. If you’re already in trouble it could be harder to get accepted into a work help program.

          1. TardyTardis*

            This was also true at my former workplace–the things you find out about people when papers get left in the copier (though for one particular worker, it didn’t turn out well, as she was gone not long after I found out).

      2. Middle School Teacher*

        I think that’s fair, there have been a lot of letters lately with a LOT of identifying details. Thanks for respecting his privacy.

  1. Cookie Captain*

    The executive team took too long to recognize that Cyril wasn’t suitable for heading a department…but that’s still more than most executive teams manage. And they actually did something about it rather than just work around him, which is even more uncommon.

    1. JayNay*

      i know right? this is a really encouraging update! it’s also interesting how the real question of the letter wasn’t “my colleague’s alcohol use is getting out of hand and affecting work, what do i do about it?”. The real problem seems to have been “a manager senior to me isn’t well suited to a management role and isn’t doing a good job managing their employees, and it’s affecting my work”. I’m glad that that underlying issue got solved!

    2. Cartographical*

      The promote first, train later (maybe), management policy is garbage. I’ve heard from some friends that they were miserable as managers and didn’t know they would be until they got they’re — and others who are honestly not great managers who love it and don’t know they aren’t that good at it. That said, if a company is doing it that way, there can legitimately be a limbo in which it’s not clear if someone needs to hit their stride or they’re just never going to get it and if they need a subset of skills it’s really hard to pull the trigger on booting someone who’s struggling. Not that it excuses anything, it’s just the cost of the promote-and-see method.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        There’s another, better hidden cost:
        Companies that want to hire from within but can’t because no one will apply to be thrown to the wolves.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    He was promoted by well-meaning executives who didn’t realize that being able to do a job isn’t the same as being able to manage people doing that job.

    This is the downfall of management everywhere in my experience.

      1. Observer*

        The difference here is that someone realized what’s going on and management actually reacted in a reasonable way.

      2. Marthooh*

        The Peter Principle was published fifty years ago. Fifty years. And management has not figured it out yet: they still think new managers can just learn it all on the fly.

    1. Me*

      Not sure how prevalent it is outside government (since that’s the only land I’ve worked in) but holy quac is it prevalent inside government. I’d say 95% of managers are at best mediocre.

      1. Zona the Great*

        Word. I’d probably be a great manager of my government agency unit but I would never take on that kind of disfunction. Sort of like the smartest people don’t have kids.

        1. Me*

          Agreed. Because even if you are a good manager, bureaucracy doesn’t let you actually fire/discipline crappy employees. Or even hire many good one given the pay for the experience (county govt level).

          I’ll manage projects and stuff but really hate managing people.

      2. JayNay*

        i’ve worked in the tech / NGO space and oooh boy – i don’t know a single manager at my last place of work who actually had qualifications around managing people. “being able to do a job isn’t the same as being able to manage people doing that job” hits the nail on the head 100 percent.

        1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

          This is my constant fear as this is my first management position (previously I was the team lead, but that’s not the same thing). But I’ve been in the position for about a year now and so far my feedback from my department head and other managers at the company has been consistently positive, so I like to think I’m rising to the occasion. But the fear hasn’t gone away.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            You read here.
            Just pointing that out. ;) There’s hope.

            From what exposure I have had I believe that management is commitment to continuous learning. We aren’t just learning our jobs we are also continuously learning about the people factor. And there is always more people factor stuff to become acquainted with.

          2. Lance*

            Self-awareness is a big key there. Being willing to take feedback, go to others for advice, try to resolve situations that are in need of resolving… I’d say you seem to be on a good track so far.

      3. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I’ve never worked in government and have seen this pretty much everywhere I’ve ever worked (and I’ve been in the workforce 20+ years).

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        From what I can tell, it’s prevalent everywhere (including the private, for-profit sector). So far the best managers I’ve met are people who are introspective and have sought training/resources to become better managers (and often had a good manager/mentor).

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I see it frequently in manufacturing. I’m finally somewhere that realized this problem and fixed a mistake made by previous executives who thought seniority was the only criteria necessary when promoting. Thankfully our case was similar to this story where the person went back and was happy in their former role. It can also backfire and hurt that person when these corrections are made, which doubles the bad decision factor in my opinion.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        I agree with this but have some mixed feelings.

        On the one hand: It’s good to see companies try to promote from within first. Employees may not know if they like managing others and often you can’t say if you’d be good at doing it until you try doing it and dealing w/what comes up.

        On the other hand: It’s a bad thing to mess up if the employee isn’t very good at managing. The new manager need quick correction if things go ass-sideways. Often that is overlooked or ignored until it’s too late.

        I wish there was a better trial method, but most people also want the promotion before they’ll attempt to become a manager (and also because you need that enhanced authority).

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          We always promote from within first, so that’s not an issue ever. The problem is that people prior don’t even think “Jane or Nancy”, they say “Jane was here first, Jane gets the promotion.” instead of realizing that she has no people management skills, likes to keep to herself, is meek and hates rocking boats, etc. This is what happened in my experience, there were other options [good options] but the person who was here first just got tossed into it. They didn’t even get asked, which is a cherry on top of that bad AF idea!

          They also rarely have the training in the bag because the person is going to ask less questions than a new person or one that tends to ask questions in the first place, instead of the ones who have been here forever and go with the flow, never questioning or raising a hand to say “Is this really the best choice, I think that we should tweak this.” when we know lots of other people have those kinds of suggestions who speak up time and time again.

          This could have happened again if the old executive was here. When our ops manager gave notice, the old management would have said “Okay, senior tech, it’s on you now! Congrats!!!!!!!” and our senior tech would have packed their stuff and left because that’s how much they do not want anything to do with management. We gave them a bump to “senior” just to say that “we’d like you to do a few extra things” and they were thankfully very vocal saying “I am okay with this, this and that. But just a heads up, do-not-want-ever to be anyone’s boss, ever. No team-lead stuff, we’re on the same playing field that way but I’m happy to do extra work in terms of projects/working more with the shop, etc. But I don’t want responsibility for anyone else!”

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            What I’ve seen is more “Nancy is a top performer, always hitting her goals and doing the job well, so clearly she should be a manager!” Meanwhile, managing a team to be top performers is a completely different skillset than actually being a top performer. If Nancy is a detail oriented person and that’s why she’s a top performer, it’s going to be more difficult for her to see the big picture and manage people.

            This is also how you end up with micromanagers. You get Nancys who are like “Well, I did x, y, and z to be successful” and maybe Jane is equally successful doing a, b, and c but Nancy thinks it has to be her way.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I have long suggested internal interim postings. Give someone a chance to do the job for a 3month ‘temp contract’ during the hiring process. Give them the extra pay for the increased responsibility, give them training to manage, give them credit for taking it on as a project, and give them their own job back at the end. If you’re lucky, they’ll excel and want the job–or decide they want the job later and know what training to ask for.
          This could even be a training program in itself–cover for medical/parental leave, for someone’s sabbatical or public-service leave, whatever.

          1. MissDisplaced*

            That’s not a bad plan! And there is a way to save face if it doesn’t work out or they realize managing people isn’t for them.

            I have to admit, when I managed a team, there were things I liked, but probably more I didn’t like! I did ok, but was kind of relieved to go back to managing projects at the next job.

    3. CatMintCat*

      This is a huge issues in schools, too. Being a Principal is a completely different skillset to being a teacher, but moving to Principal is the only avenue to promotion in the field. So we end up with a lot of mediocre Principals who were brilliant teachers. There may be mediocre teachers who would make brilliant Principals, but they don’t get the chance at promotion – because they’re mediocre at their job.

  3. Elenna*

    Yay for updates where upper management was actually competent and things worked out well!

    Also, mostly unrelated but I just realized that this is the second-last day of update month… :(

  4. Ray Gillette (OP)*

    Hi all, Sterling was fired. Prior to his firing the new operational manager made very clear to him what the problems with his performance were and the level of change she expected from him if he wanted to keep his job. He didn’t shape up and I got the impression he didn’t think she’d actually do it. Of course nobody ever wants to fire an employee, especially when relatively new to the company, but he didn’t leave her any other options.

    I’ve spoken with him since he left, but I don’t want to say any more about what happened next out of respect for his privacy.

    1. Cartographical*

      That’s really unfortunate that he was fired, for him, but it sounds like the new manager did her due diligence. I wish Sterling the best and hope you have a better time of it with this new structure.

      1. JSPA*

        Long-term, enabling isn’t kinder. I suppose that assumes he had and has a roof above his head–“homeless in winter” is a pretty deep bottom to hit– but really, the sooner the problem registers, the less physical, mental, emotional, economic and relationship damage there will be.

        1. Cartographical*

          Of course, I intended to phrase that better: that it got to the point that he had to be fired because he was unable to grasp the extent of his problems and make a go of fixing them — if he’d been able to address his issues constructively, he’d be in a much better position in every way right now.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        From the OP’s update it sounds like new manager was clear, but Sterling was a bit in denial about consequences being real for him (possibly because they hadn’t been real before under Cyril).

        I hope that Sterling is able to get the help he needs, hitting bottom isn’t fun but can be necessary to realize, “yeah, I do need help.”

    2. blackcatlady*

      I wrote in to your original post, I’m a recovering alcoholic (almost 20 years!). I had tried to give you some insights to how Sterling viewed his drinking and the difficulty in making him face the problem. We all have different ‘bottom points’ and may or may not be able to recover. I really hope Sterling has been able to get help. It will be a damn difficult struggle and I hope he makes it.

      1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

        I remember your comments! They were really valuable for perspective. I wish him the best for his future and I hope some day I can deliver another update with good news.

    3. Observer*

      Interesting! I feel sorry for Sterling, but it sounds like the OM did the best that she could with what she had to work with.

      Would you mind sharing what brought upper management to recognize the problems and rectify them?

  5. AppleStan*

    Ray Gillette (OP), may I first say that I *love* all of the Archer references.

    Next, I agree with the posters above that there were two main issues….Sterling and Cyril. I’m glad Cyril was demoted to a place where he was happiest. A lot of times (for whatever reason) demotion isn’t an option, and so the non-performing manager is fired.

    I have an issue with this “norm,” because first-time managers are often at an extreme disadvantage, especially if they were not looking to promote into “management,” but management is simply…thrust upon them. Management is an art, not a science, and you don’t start studying your craft until after your promotion. That doesn’t work well for anyone.

    Unfortunately, as a government worker, I see all the time the promotion of people to management positions where they really aren’t qualified and don’t get the support that they need. Some manage to do quite well and others don’t…it’s not often completely their fault, but if you don’t even begin to know how to be a good manager, you’re only going to model the behavior you’ve seen…and that isn’t always good. However, due to how people are paid, you aren’t often able to receive performance-based raises, so the only way to get a raise is to promote into a position, which may or may not be suited to your management skills.

    It’s a horrible cycle that really keeps our system from functioning as well as it should.

    I’m glad Cyril is happy, I hope Sterling gets the help that he needs, I’m glad things are looking up for you, Ray, and I hope things continue on an upward slope!

    1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      Thanks! We are private sector and a small company, so we have a bit more flexibility in process. In some ways that’s a strength (once leadership committed to doing something, they were able to make changes relatively quickly), but it comes with its drawbacks (as we had never been in this situation before, there was no established precedent for what to do).

  6. Neon*

    It really seems like the issue here is not “Sterling is an alcoholic” as much as “Sterling’s behavior is causing problems for people at work”.

    “Makes poor choices with respect to alcohol” is not the same thing as “alcoholism” and it is not helpful to think of them interchangeably. I submit that alcoholism by itself is not a firing offense, or really even necessarily a problem for an employer. There are many alcoholics who don’t drink at all, ever.

    I work with an out alcoholic who is also extremely professional and reliable. She shows up on time (sober) ready to work, does a great job, and then gets blind drunk in the hotel bar every night. She’s been this way for years. I worry about her on a personal/human level but as her colleague … I don’t really care.

    She gets her job done and she isn’t endangering other people or doing anything illegal. Shrug. It’s really no different to me than a co-worker who’s a heavy smoker or rides a motorcycle without a helmet – not a great choice but not my work problem to fix or worry about.

    Likewise, I’ve worked with people who would frequently party too hard and show up hung-over. They weren’t alcoholics, inasmuch as they apparently weren’t *addicted* to alcohol and were able to immediately curtail their worknight drinking when their boss made it clear that the results were a problem.

    “I think Sterling is an alcoholic” is not a helpful way to phrase this to a boss, much better to go with “Sterling is unreliable and makes inappropriate jokes” or whatever the specific problem is, without speculating on the reasons why he’s doing these things.

    1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      This has come up a few times. So, the real reason for my subject line: I needed something short and punchy to make my letter stand out in Alison’s overflowing inbox, and it worked. When I spoke with my department head I focused on his behavior in the office, and his behavior in office was the reason why he was fired.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I agree with your point, as I too have worked with what would be deemed “functioning” alcoholics, I’m also related to a few as well. Their addiction doesn’t get in the way of their professional responsibilities but does get in the way of personal obligations.

      But in reality when you can draw a conclusion and point out what you think is the root cause of the problem, people tend to listen more when you complain. It’s unfortunate.

      It’s also the fact that if the OP wrote in that he had these problems, people are going to dig and try to figure out the “why” factor without giving proper advice to the person seeking it.

      It would be great if as a society we could deal with lack of details, especially such personal ones as addiction and dependency but it really isn’t like that at all.

  7. Sally Forth*

    This is so well said and describes so many Peter Principle situations. “He was promoted by well-meaning executives who didn’t realize that being able to do a job isn’t the same as being able to manage people doing that job.“

    1. SimplyTheBest*

      On the flip side of that you have people saying you can’t effectively manage rodeo clowns without first being a rodeo clown yourself which can keep people out of management jobs they’d be good for

  8. Zombeyonce*

    I know it might give away more than OP is willing to share, but I always wonder what skills are included in “highly coveted skill sets” mentioned in letters from time to time just in case they sound like something I’d enjoy learning to do. If you can share, OP, I’d love to know!

    1. Ray Gillette (OP)*

      They tend to be niche enough to be identifying if you’re in the industry and wouldn’t necessarily be meaningful to someone who isn’t in the industry, at least in my experience. But to try and hit the sweet spot of vague and explaining, think of a software developer who is an expert in a specific programming language that’s used in a lot of business systems but isn’t exciting or glamorous so people who don’t already know that language aren’t really interested in learning it; and recent grads might not even know it exists.

  9. Fikly*

    Save me from well-meaning anyones.

    Every time I hear someone say “But I/they meant well” I want to punch them in the face.

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