Dear Businesslady: How Do I Do Right By My Coworker? -The Toast

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Dear Businesslady,

I work in a small office (like we-don’t-have-any-HR-department small). My co-worker, who is my age (30), is an alcoholic. He used to be a really intense one — like fucking-up-all-the-time, mystery-sick-days, smelling-like-a-distillery, positively-purple-and-about-to-pass-out-in-meetings kind of intense. Then he was sent on a mandatory leave of absence by the management, for detox. He came back sober, but flash forward a year and he’s back to drinking at work on the regular. He’s not as extreme as he was, but his breath smells like alcohol most days, and sometimes he has hand tremors. The other day I secretly smelled the bottle of juice on his desk — it was mostly vodka.

The other day I spoke to him privately about his continued drinking at work. He seemed to be concerned only by the possibility of being fired. He told me he never sought the recommended post-detox treatment (therapy, AA, anything). I tried to be compassionate while mainly sticking to facts (because that’s what the websites about confronting your alcoholic co-worker all said to do), and encouraged him to seek treatment. 

He’s tough to work with in general, due to traits that I suspect are linked to his addiction (sullen, silent, uncooperative, undependable, with a ‘victim’ mentality). I’m also worried he won’t be on the ball for some upcoming work responsibilities (we will shortly have many new people to train, and he’s one of the employees being tasked with training). WTF do I do, Businesslady? Am I enabling his addiction if I don’t say something to management? And what are some other important things for people to know about booze and the workplace?

Dear Worried,

This is obviously a problem on a different order of magnitude than “my coworker is being kind of a pain,” and I don’t blame you at all for being concerned.

When you say he went through “detox,” it’s not clear to me whether that was via some kind of program — but the fact that he didn’t do therapy or AA afterward makes me feel like he was going it alone. And that, just by itself, is a little terrifying. My first instinct was to say this was negligent on your company’s part: if management was sufficiently aware of the problem to address it via a leave of absence, I don’t see why they couldn’t have hooked him up with a reputable rehab facility.

…but, I actually don’t know much about this, which is why I brought in a good friend who also happens to be a recovered alcoholic and an HR professional to help with my answer. As it turns out, my initial negative reaction was pretty off-base. Typical treatment programs can’t actually force you to attend AA; that only happens if the criminal justice system gets involved and you get a court-ordered mandate. It’s also worth noting that small companies often terminate people rather than let people return to their jobs after rehab, so all things considered, your company is acting pretty compassionately here.

That said, here’s a little PSA for everyone: if a person is a sufficiently advanced alcoholic, quitting cold-turkey can actually be fatal — something I didn’t fully realize until recently. (Okay, full disclosure, I was binge-watching Intervention on a business trip and ended up going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole on alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which is no joke.) If you know someone has a substance-abuse problem of any kind, it is downright dangerous to suggest that they try to clean up without professional help. Similarly, if you’re struggling with addiction, don’t just try to tough it out on your own.

(On a related note, may I direct you to The Toast’s fascinating and often heartbreaking essays on DUIs and addiction from a few years ago? It’s worth reading if you haven’t seen it, and worth revisiting if you have.)

Anyway, the legalities and practicalities of your coworker’s previous treatment are all in the past — your question is about how to move forward. And there are really two issues here: one of “how do I keep my workplace running smoothly despite having an alcoholic coworker” and another of “how do I help someone who’s endangering their own wellbeing?”

Here’s what my friend had to say about both:

I would recommend that this woman talk to management again, let them know he is drinking on the job, and point to any ways he is unable to do his work. Maybe they will seek treatment for him again and have mandatory alcohol/drug tests required through the treatment or maybe they will terminate him. That is not her burden to bear. She needs to know that she is not helping him by keeping quiet about it. He may only get better if he has some hard consequences. He also may never get better and that is not her fault either.

While it’s difficult to imagine being in your position, I agree with this advice. This man’s health is in jeopardy, and if he’s driving to and from the office, he could be endangering the lives of other people on the road. He’s also presenting a threat to the company, not just by (presumably) making mistakes a sober employee wouldn’t make, but by presenting a disturbing picture to the new hires he’s in charge of training. If I started a new job and smelled booze on the breath of the person who was onboarding me, I’d have strong reservations about the workplace culture and standards of the organization as a whole — and if I had other viable opportunities from my job search, I’d certainly consider pursuing them. You don’t want to lose good people because this guy has an intractable problem.

For the record, though, I’m pretty strongly against drug/alcohol testing in jobs where physical competency and mechanical safety aren’t at issue. Not because I think the world would be a better place if all our coworkers were constantly high and/or drunk (I think this letter pretty clearly illustrates the problems that an intellectually compromised colleague can cause) but because it’s a violation of privacy and civil liberties and not necessarily a reliable indicator of how good an employee someone will be.

As for your last question — well, that’s something that will vary widely depending on your field and the culture of your workplace. I’ve worked for companies where “get totally shitfaced together” was considered a form of team-building, and the results were…problematic. I’ve also cracked a beer while working late and then been relieved when my boss didn’t say anything about it during a surprise visit to my office. I’ve been way too drunk around coworkers, and the resulting embarrassment far outweighed the fun. But then again, some of my most enduring workplace friendships were formed over some in vino veritas real talk.

So it’s difficult to give a hard-and-fast rule. But some good rubrics are as follows: Don’t ever be the drunkest person in the room. If you overindulge, try not to draw attention to it. If you overindulge and do something that makes it obvious, apologize sincerely and then drop it — and make sure you handle yourself more responsibly the next time there’s a booze/workplace overlap.

Most importantly, if it’s hard for you to cut yourself off — even if you feel like you’re in control and no one seems to be reacting negatively to your fun, buzzy self — keep an eye on that. It’s one thing to occasionally lose track of how many little plastic cups of wine you had at a reception; it’s another to realize that you’re constantly closing down the bar. Acknowledging that you have a problem with alcohol (or any addictive substance) and getting treatment for that problem is one of the bravest things a person can do, and I think we should all do our part to eliminate the social stigma that encourages addicts to suffer in silence.

If you have the time and inclination, send me a follow-up note to let me know how your coworker is doing — I’ll be thinking about you both, and hoping that he manages to get help.

(I realize this question is a tough act to follow, so consider this next one a palate cleanser.)


Dear Businesslady,

I’m looking for advice about how to help one of my employees develop professionally. I work in a field in which graduate degrees are conditions for entry, and doctorates are highly preferred. There are a number of different professions that may qualify someone for employment in this field, but they all require a lot of advanced education. I supervise a multidisciplinary team, all of whom are highly educated professionals, with one exception: my admin assistant. She’s a young woman with an undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline, who’s interested in pursuing further education but isn’t quite sure where she wants to land yet, and is working for a few years to (a) learn more about the realities of the field and (b) save up some money. It’s a great plan and I was really glad to find her: she’s sharp and hardworking, and very committed.

The problem that I’m running into is that I’m not entirely sure how to support her professional development (which she indicated at the time of hire was important to her, and which I committed to supporting — in my opinion, it’s a core responsibility of management). With my professional staff, I know exactly how to help them build their skills and advance. My admin, in contrast, is so early in her career and not quite focused yet, so I’m not sure how to even begin to talk to her about the practical realities of career advancement. I’ve tried having a couple of conversations with her about it, which end up with me basically saying “so…what do you want to be when you grow up?” and her replying “um, I don’t know…something in [field].” I’ve never supervised someone so junior and inexperienced, so I’m at a little bit of a loss. Even our direct supervision about her regular job duties is basically just running through a list of tasks and me giving her pretty concrete direction. Help, Businesslady! I want to do right by my awesome admin.

Dear Mentor/Manager,

I like pairing this question with the previous one because — in addition to it serving as a mood lightener — you and the LW above are both asking “how do I do right by my coworker?”

I also relate to this situation a lot, because I myself crawled onto my career path from the primordial soup of secretaria. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do (or even that my current job, which on most days I love, was a Thing) after undergrad; I just knew that I needed to support myself and that I was reasonably competent at admin tasks.

I wasn’t lucky enough to have a manager who was personally invested in my professional development — at least not in the hands-on way you’re describing — but if someone had asked me back then what I wanted the future to look like, my answers would’ve sounded a lot like your employee’s. It’s not like you get a comprehensive list of possible roles, complete with pros and cons, when you graduate college. You have to figure out what you’re good at, what you like, what excites you, and (just as importantly!) what you loathe via real-world experience.

So I think you’re doing everything right, with the exception of maybe overthinking this a little bit. As an admin, her job is to support the rest of your team — and if she’s doing that well (which it sounds like) then you’re being a good manager. Mentoring her can happen naturally as you continue working together: try to pay attention to what she really enjoys, what she excels at, and what she struggles at, and then help her understand the way those capabilities align (or don’t) with jobs in your field. If she’s great at X but it’s irrelevant to higher-level roles in your industry, flag that for her. If she’s terrible at Y but it’s essential to her advancement, find a course she can take to improve her skills. If she’s clearly burning with passion for Z, help her identify graduate programs that will capitalize on that interest.

At the same time, try to find ways for her to get a more in-depth understanding of your team’s projects (to the extent that her workload and your process allows). Sitting in on meetings, being copied on emails, and things like that are often the best way to get a realistic sense of what “a job in X field” is like on a day-to-day basis. If she shows particular aptitude in a certain area, you might even consider expanding her role to include those duties and give her some hands-on experience (although again, this needs to be something that makes sense in the context of your organization’s workflow).

It’s not your responsibility to ensure that she ends up on a rewarding career path — but if you take the steps I’ve outlined above, that (coupled with your clear personal investment in this person, which I really admire) will set her up for success. Keep in mind too that her priorities might change over time; if she leaves to pursue a different field or work for a competitor, that’s not on you either. You’re clearly making a more than good-faith effort to help her along, and the rest is up to her.

I wish more managers considered their employees’ futures in such a thoughtful and big-picture way, so kudos in helping reinforce my faith in (professional) humanity.


Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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