If your firm is interested in establishing an employee assistance program (EAP), do your homework before selecting a provider.

The concept of employee assistance programs began with workplace alcoholism programs; most now offer employees help with a variety of problems, including marital, financial and legal problems and substance abuse.

Program providers say the elements of a good EAP include: A policy that clearly communicates the company's rules concerning the use of drugs and alcohol.

An educational campaign to teach workers the dangers of substance abuse. This both promotes the program and builds trust in it.

A program to teach supervisors how to identify symptoms of substance abuse and other problems that may affect performance. Participants generally enter the programs voluntarily or through supervisor referrals.

A method of assessing the nature of the problem and treating the worker. Because treatment is often expensive, employee assistance programs are useless to most employees unless company benefits cover costs.

Confidentiality. If employees don't believe their involvement in an employee assistance program will be kept in the strictest confidence, they won't participate.

A data-collection and reporting system to help evaluate effectiveness. The provider should submit a report at least quarterly that indicates the participation rate, which should be 5 to 10 percent of the work force. A breakdown of the sex, age, race and problem types is also helpful. The provider should report how referrals to the program were made. If only 5 percent of the participants were referred by supervisors, it may indicate that supervisors haven't been properly trained.

Companies with fewer than 4,000 or 5,000 employees typically use outside providers to install and manage the program. Larger companies frequently establish in-house programs that operate within the personnel, human resource or medical departments.

There are numerous public agencies, consultants, hospitals, treatment centers and psychologists that provide employee assistance programs. Nonprofit organizations in the Southeast generally charge $3 to $15 an employee per year, while other providers charge between $15 to $30.

When choosing a provider, a key consideration should be the motive of the candidate. Since hospitals and psychologists sometimes may provide employee assistance services to fill beds and build case loads, some experts suggest sticking with a provider whose sole business is providing employee assistance.

Full-service providers should help develop the company's policy, provide educational programs for employees and train supervisors. In addition, they should conduct assessment and referral services and supply the company with information on the effectiveness of the program.