I think my co-worker may have a drinking problem. She brags at lunchtime about the partying she does over the weekends. She showed up drunk to a company event, and though she wasn’t falling down or anything, she was slurring her words and fell asleep during a guest presentation. It’s a small company we work for, and there’s no official HR department. She’s been here longer than any of us, including her boss. We used to get along, but now she won’t answer emails I send and doesn’t get me the info I need to do my job. I can’t figure out if she’s upset with me, or if the drinking is becoming a problem, or a combination of the two. I don’t want to go to her boss because I’ll be labeled a snitch and everyone will figure out I was the one who complained. Any suggestions?
Is it 5 O’Clock Yet?
Dear 5 O’Clock,
It’s one thing to party on the weekend, and quite another to show up drunk at work. I suspect you’re not the only one who sees this behavior, but they are reluctant, like you, to speak up. I know a little bit about dealing with alcoholics (and I welcome my readers to add their comments), and one thing I have experienced is that the rules always change. With alcoholics, you never know from one day to the next if you’re in their good graces or not. And if you do fall out of their favor, they won’t tell you in a constructive way. They’ll either passive-aggressively shut you out, or during one of these storied parties they’ll find a way to get in a few good digs or a full-blown rant against you if you’re around and they’re drinking enough.
I suggest you separate the two issues: 1) the stalled communication; and, 2) the drinking during work hours. First, ask for a private meeting with your co-worker. Calmly offer concrete examples of communications that are going unanswered. Ask if you need to clear the air about anything. (Leave your suspicions about her drinking out of it.) Hopefully, she will be receptive, you will have a constructive conversation, and you’ll see improvement in the future. If she shuts you down, and her behavior doesn’t change, then the next step is to talk to your boss. Again, focus on the work-related concerns and see if steps are taken to help improve communication between you two. It’s important that your boss knows that you first addressed the situation directly with your co-worker.
Addressing the drinking is a different issue entirely. Interventions may not go well for the intervenor. Alcoholics function in systems that tacitly allow the drinking to go on. Those around the alcoholic accept increasingly alarming behaviors as normal. Then, a car accident, or a job loss, or a serious injury occurs. Everyone wonders, “How could this have happened?”, when the truth is they DID see it coming in the progressively sloppy actions of the alcoholic. It takes immense courage to be the one who calls out the inappropriate behavior of the alcoholic, because the intervention includes the entire system of people the alcoholic interacts with. The size of the company and the absence of an HR department give you little protection should you air these concerns to your supervisor. Have there been enough instances of suspicious behavior during work hours to merit waving a red flag at management? Are you willing to risk possibly being ostracized by your coworkers and seen as the “bad guy”? Or, are there others who’d be willing to stand with you? Do you want to engage in the drama that will surely follow a public airing of these concerns? Shining a light on your co-worker’s behavior may be the right thing to do, especially if she’s a danger to others or herself. As with most principled stands, however, there’s a price to be paid. Only you can decide if the trade-off is worth it to you.
As you mull over these questions, I recommend taking the high road and initiating the conversation described, above. Be your professional best through the process, and watch how people react: your co-worker, your boss, etc. These observations will give you valuable information about the organization, and if this is an environment you can (and want) to work in. Dust off your resume in the meantime and be open to new opportunities that come along. Her stone-walling is affecting your performance, and you can’t let that impact your professional development. Good luck!