Q: My supervisor takes two-hour liquid lunches at least three times a week. He often asks someone on the staff to come with him when he goes drinking. Sometimes a colleague brings beer into the office and they have happy hour in the middle of the afternoon. At a recent convention, the colleague's face was flushed and he reeked of alcohol. I was embarrassed for him, but also for our organization, which is a nonprofit association. I don't think this is right. How should I handle this situation?
A: "Very carefully," said Paul Sherman, an employee assistance counselor in Rye, N.Y. These counselors specialize in helping workers cope with substance abuse.
Sherman said the situation as described by the letter-writer is clearly "not social drinking," and is probably creating negative effects within the organization. "It's inappropriate, it's a problem and it's creating other problems in the organization," he said.
The issue is especially tricky when it involves the boss, he said. On one hand, it's worse than if it involved a junior employee, because supervisors make decisions that affect the entire organization, which means subordinates then spend huge amounts of time doing damage control. And on the other hand, the boss is likely to feel greatly threatened by anyone who raises such a sensitive topic. "He could become vindictive," Sherman said.
Sherman said the writer should find out if there is an employee counseling service offered on the job, and raise the issue there, asking how to handle one's own productivity in the situation. About 90 percent of large companies have such employee assistance programs, and a growing number of small- and medium-sized firms have them.
If there are no such individuals available through work, the issue could be raised with a well-trained human resource official there, Sherman said. But he warned that's a risky step to take, because at many organizations, "the human resource function [is viewed] only as a tool of top management."
Another option, Sherman said, would be to consider transferring to another department within the organization.
One small consolation is that you're not alone: Most substance abusers are not skid-row drunks loitering around on the street. Almost 7 percent of full-time workers reported drinking heavily during the past month, and about 73 percent of drug users are employed, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. For more information, you can call 1-800-WORKPLACE (actually 1-800-967-5752), a hot line run by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
Q: I'm a single mother, with two children under age 6. I worked for my employer, a nonprofit group, as a temp for several months before I was hired as a permanent employee. Soon after my position became permanent, I was hospitalized, and I had to borrow against my sick leave, so I started out in the hole. We get 12.5 hours a month of leave, so it takes a while to make it up. Then a few months later, my son got the chicken pox, and I went even deeper into the hole. Then I unexpectedly became pregnant, and had to take some more time off when the baby came. They have spoken to me on numerous occasions about my attendance.
I am not the type of person to stay home from work because I feel like it. I am home only when my children are sick. Even when I am sick, I go to work because I don't want to hear complaints. I have a front desk job, which is very demanding and so unfair to me because I have no flexibility. I feel like I'm being picked on because I'm a single parent. This is such a big problem that when I got pregnant, I considered an abortion, but I couldn't go through with it.
I want to take my children on vacation this summer, but because they have been sick and I am on leave restriction, I cannot take vacation. If I am fired from this job, what can I do? I have documented for the past year and a half all days I have had to take off due to illnesses.
A: Well, the good news is that you have paid leave at all. According to the Families and Work Institute's work force studies, only 37 percent of single parents are granted paid time off to care for sick children, mostly because they tend to be clustered in low-pay, low-skill, low-status jobs with less generous benefits.
The main thing working parents need, particularly single mothers, is flexibility in their schedules, said Dana Friedman, senior vice president for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a work-life consulting firm. Receptionist jobs are notoriously inflexible, because those are the key, front-desk employees who are needed to open up the office, screen telephone calls and make sure everybody gets the packages they need, often without backup workers to fill in.
"Receptionist jobs are the worst," Friedman said, recalling the hundreds of worker focus groups she has attended where workers have discussed their on-the-job stresses. "They're given no flexibility and sometimes they are punished for tardiness."
She said the organization could probably be more sympathetic than it has been, particularly given that the writer is a single mother, if her work performance otherwise has been good. Friedman said the writer should discuss the issue with her supervisors, and ask that she receive some accommodation: Perhaps the leave debit could be erased so she can take a few days off this summer. If they are unreceptive, Friedman said, the writer needs to realize that perhaps it's time for her to look for another job.
That's not necessarily bad news. With unemployment at 4.2 percent, a 29-year low, many organizations are eager to get new workers, and might be willing to negotiate some paid time off within the first six months in the new position. A job with the federal government might be a particularly good bet, because the Clinton administration, which is pushing to create a more family-friendly work environment, has recently announced that it will permit federal workers to use up to 60 days of accumulated sick leave per year to care for a sick child, parent or spouse with serious health problems, up from 13 days a year.
You can write to Kirstin Downey Grimsley at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address and telephone numbers -- although we won't publish your name without your permission.
On the Move
Today marks the move of the "On the Job" column from Sunday to Wednesday. Each week, workplace reporter Kirstin Downey Grimsley will answer reader questions on issues such as how to deal with difficult co-workers, how to cope with work and management problems and how to balance work and family matters.