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CAREER PROS: Ex-Addicts Canít Kick Stigma

California Job Journal, September 19, 2004

by Michael Kinsman

A compelling new study shows the emergence of a previously undefined type of workplace discrimination.

The survey, by the Hazelden Foundation in Minneapolis, reports that one in four human resources professionals admits that their companies are less likely to hire a job candidate if that person is in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.

"The stigma of alcohol and drug addiction is alive and well," notes Cheryl Lowe, employee relations manager for Hazelden, an addiction treatment and research center. "Our study certainly shows that there is discrimination when it comes to people who have had an addiction."

Discreet Discrimination

In its survey of 200 HR professionals around the country, Hazelden found that 84 percent consider a drug or alcohol addiction a chronic illness or disease, while 89 percent believe that addiction treatment can be effective.

But the deeds of their companies don't match up with their realizations. "There's a disconnect," Lowe asserts.

With an estimated 10 percent of the American adult population either suffering from an addiction problem or in recovery, it's difficult to imagine that HR professionals would admit that discrimination exists.

"It bothers me that they believe that an addiction is a disease, but they choose to treat people with other chronic diseases differently," Lowe feels. "If you have a physical problem like cancer or a disease that requires some type of aftercare, companies are very accepting of that. If you have an addiction and require aftercare, they are not."

Managers Ill-Prepared

Ann Clark, whose San Diego-based Ann Clark Associates runs a nationwide employee assistance plan for companies, believes most managers in the workplace aren't prepared to deal with addiction issues.

She points out that managers are not trained to identify why workers exhibit certain behaviors and that they sometimes recognize the problem but look the other way. "They think they have to find the cork and the bottle in the desk drawer before there is a problem."

Lowe reasons that even when addiction problems manifest in absenteeism or lower productivity, most managers are uncomfortable confronting the issue.

"Direct supervisors usually have suspicions but fail to act," she insists. "They get stuck. They say, 'Well, I don't really know for sure, so I'm not going to say anything about it.'"

The Hazelden survey shows that 36 percent of HR professionals don't know how to steer addicted workers into treatment, and that one in four say their companies believe it is easier in the long run to terminate an addicted employee as opposed to getting them treatment.

"Think about any other chronic condition," Lowe continues. "Do you think any employer would say that?"

Chronic Neglect

Drug and alcohol addiction fall into the same category of psychological issues among people in the work force. These are things we are uncertain and uncomfortable in handling, so we just tend to let them worsen.

Failing to deal with problems, though, is the curse of any manager and, ultimately, can wreak havoc with a company's foundation. There can be no excuse for ignoring it.

Lowe and Clark agree that educating supervisors on how to spot drug and alcohol-addicted workers is essential, as is informing them of where to direct those employees for help.

"A lot of people will spot a problem in the workplace and just hope the person can pull themselves together and take care of the problem on their own," Lowe remarks. "But companies really need to look at the culture they have to see how it responds to people who have addiction problems. You can't just wish the problems away."

Lowe points to a 2001 study by the Health & Human Services Department which found that 76 percent of all illicit drug users are employed at least part-time.

"The vast majority are working, but we don't seem very prepared to help them," she concludes.

Michael Kinsman is a syndicated columnist for Copley News Service. His e-mail address is

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