Is that employee using drugs?

September 2, 2005

My partners and I think one of our nurses, who's been with us for five years, is addicted to a drug she gets on the street. (We don't keep controlled substances in the office.) Before she harms a patient, we'd like to fire her. We can't prove she's a substance abuser, though, and she's still reasonably competent on the job. Can we simply tell her we've eliminated her position?

Q: My partners and I think one of our nurses, who's been with us for five years, is addicted to a drug she gets on the street. (We don't keep controlled substances in the office.) Before she harms a patient, we'd like to fire her. We can't prove she's a substance abuser, though, and she's still reasonably competent on the job. Can we simply tell her we've eliminated her position?

A: If you do that, you may invite a wrongful-discharge suit. Be honest with your nurse. Say you've noticed certain changes-such as mood swings, tardiness, lethargy, something in her physical appearance. Ask whether she's having a personal problem that affects her during working hours, and offer to discuss it. If she denies having a problem, restate your observations, tell her that her behavior is unacceptable, and put her on probation for whatever specific period you consider reasonable. If she admits to drug addiction, offer to find help for her and give her a leave of absence to recover. Your medical benefits package may include partial payment for drug rehabilitation. If you must fire her, cite only her unacceptable behavior on the job-not her suspected addiction-as the reason. As with all conferences with employees, document everything in her personnel file to protect you in case of a lawsuit.