Favorite Firing: Working While Intoxicated

417px-Interlocking_USC_Logo.svgA few months ago the University of Southern California fired its head football coach for showing up to work drunk. Then in December 2015, the coach sued USC, which shouldn’t surprise anyone with employment law experience.

Most cases in which alcoholism impacts the workplace are not so public, but this one offers lessons for both employees and employers.

The Facts: The facts of this case are disputed, because it is still in litigation. Here’s the version I’ve gleaned from the media:

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian allegedly attended a number of events while under the influence of alcohol and/or medications in the months before he was fired. In August 2015 he showed up to a USC event apparently under the influence, which provoked media headlines, and he later apologized. At a game in late September 2015 his staff suspected that he was under the influence.

And in October 2015, Coach Sarkisian “appeared not normal” at an event, according to one news source. A player said after that occasion that the coach “showed up lit to meetings again today.” His manager, Pat Haden, Athletic Director for USC, said it was “clear to me that he was not healthy,” as quoted on ESPN.com. Coach Sarkisian was instructed to leave, and he was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence.

A few days later, Mr. Haden announced that he had fired Coach Sarkisian. Coach Sarkisian entered a rehabilitation program.

Then in December 2015, the coach sued USC for breach of contract and disability discrimination. That lawsuit is in its very early stages.

The Moral: It appears that this situation has been a long time in the making, as are most situations involving substance abuse of any kind that impact the workplace. And how much of the behavioral problems are due to alcoholism and how much they should be excused will be issues in the lawsuit, as such issues typically are in cases involving substance abuse.

Alcoholism is a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but having a disability does not protect an employee from the consequences of his or her behavior.

An employer may still maintain a policy prohibiting using drugs or alcohol during working hours and/or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while at work. Employees can be fired for violating those policies, or for any other breaches of company behavioral policies (such as rudeness to customers or other employees), even if the employee is an alcoholic or addict and his or her bad conduct occurred while under the influence. Employees with addictions can also be held to the same performance standards as other employees.

As the EEOC states:

“The ADA specifically permits employers to prohibit the use of alcohol or the illegal use of drugs in the workplace. Consequently, an employee who violates such policies, even if the conduct stems from alcoholism or drug addiction, may face the same discipline as any other employee. The ADA also permits employers to require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol or the illegal use of drugs in the workplace.”


“employers may require an employee who is an alcoholic or who engages in the illegal use of drugs to meet the same standards of performance and behavior as other employees. This means that poor job performance or unsatisfactory behavior – such as absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination, or on-the-job accidents – related to an employee’s alcoholism or illegal use of drugs need not be tolerated if similar performance or conduct would not be acceptable for other employees.”

The moral here is that employers need to have firm policies defining acceptable and unacceptable conduct. And they need to enforce those policies consistently. It won’t do for employers to permit non-addict curmudgeonly managers to yell at their subordinates, yet fire alcoholics who engage in the same behavior.

It is a good practice for employers to refer employees they suspect of having substance abuse problems to an employee assistance program, but having such programs is not required. And an employer can still enforce discipline, even if the employee seeks assistance, which appears to be what happened in the USC case.

Only time and litigation will disclose what happened in the USC case. Only the lawsuit or a settlement will now resolve the matter.

But this unfortunate situation is an opportunity for employers to review their policies and practices around substance abuse. And to train managers in how to handle future problems consistently with other performance and behavioral issues.

When have you had to deal with substance abuse problems in the workplace?

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Filed under Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

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