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
The survey, by the
Hazelden Foundation in
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."
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."
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.
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?"
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
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
Michael Kinsman is a syndicated
columnist for Copley News Service. His e-mail address is
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