How To Deal With An Alcoholic Boss

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on June 24, 2013

Emotional Vampires At WorkColin is a party animal.  He’ll be the first to tell you, because to him, it’s the best thing you can possibly be.  Work hard, play hard, that’s his motto.  Every day at 5 on the dot, he’s at happy hour.  Want to come?  You’d better if you want some face time. 

For many people, the word alcoholic conjures up the slurring, staggering, reeking image of someone who drinks most of the time to the exclusion of all else.  That’s what the disease is like in its late stage, but most of the alcoholics you know are more like Colin.  They drink too much too often, but still manage to get to work and do their jobs, at least after a fashion.

Should you ask them – and you probably shouldn’t — they will maintain that they are not alcoholics because they don’t drink all that much, they still work regularly and get lots of things done, and besides, they can stop any time they want.  Let’s not quibble about who is and isn’t an alcoholic.  Instead, let’s talk about how people like Colin think and what you should do if you report to a substance abuser.

Substance abusers think that alcohol, or whatever other drug they’re into, doesn’t affect their performance or their day to day behavior.  The people who have to work with them know otherwise.  You don’t have to be drunk on the job for drinking to be a problem.

Drugs subtly dictate the thoughts, actions, and even the schedules of their devotees.  Try to discuss something important with Colin before he’s had his sixth cup of coffee in the morning, or at ten minutes before happy hour, and you’ll see what I mean.

Happy hour starts at five for a reason.  Drinking is part of the culture of work in many places.  You will have to make your peace with it somehow, because you will not be able to avoid it even if you don’t actively participate.

With an alcoholic boss, there are several traps you can fall into:

If you think of your boss’s alcoholism as a moral or medical problem, rather than a work issue, you may assume that there is someone in the organization who can make him or her get treatment.  Unfortunately, there probably isn’t.  Instead of dealing with the situation as it is, if you keep hoping that someone in authority will do something about it, you may be delaying the process by heroically trying to hold the department together.  This is called being an enabler.

Another trap is getting into problem drinking yourself.  You may think you have to go to happy hour to drink with your boss, or to a different hangout to drink with coworkers and complain about your boss. Either way, substance abuse can be contagious.

If by chance you have a party guy like Colin for a boss, here are some more productive ideas:

  • If Your Boss Goes to Happy Hour, You Probably Should Too — Like it or not, the department will be divided between those who go and those who don’t.  Colin will regard the people who go as his real team, and act accordingly.  If you want him to take you seriously at work, he needs to see you at the bar.   If you go, you don’t have to stay long, as the only thing people will remember is who was there and who wasn’t.  You don’t have to drink either.  Surreptitiously tip the bartender and tell him or her that your “usual” is iced tea on the rocks with a slice of fruit.  If you do drink, never let it be more than one.  Needless to say, if you are in recovery yourself, the dangers of going far exceed those of staying away.  Be proud of your recovery, don’t hide it.  But don’t talk about the details unless you’re at an AA meeting.
  • Know the Schedule —Alcoholics have times during the day when it’s safe to approach and times it’s best to stay away because they are distracted or irritable or both.  Unless drinking starts at midday, a couple of hours before or after lunch are usually the best bets for actually getting some work done.
  • Don’t Cover For Your Boss — An alcoholic boss will make mistakes that affect the whole department.  Tempting as it is, don’t step in and correct them.  The most dangerous place to be is between a substance abuser and the consequences of his or her behavior.  If there are no consequences, there will be no change.
  • Keep Minutes — Alcoholics have lousy memories.  When your boss tells you something, write it down, preferably in an email saying: “Just want to clarify: at our meeting today, you said . . . Let me know if I misunderstood.  If I don’t hear from you I will assume that I am correct about your intentions.”  Cc whoever is appropriate.  This sort of simple, respectful email can be a lifesaver.
  • Don’t Even Think About an Intervention — Unless they are handled with utmost skill, interventions only make people angry.  Interventions are unduly popular because normal people think, “That would work on me.”  One of the biggest mistakes you can make with alcoholics is assuming they think the same way you do.  In doing an intervention, everything is against you.  Alcoholics are in denial and may not care how others feel.  Interventions are risky even for therapists with years of experience.  The only ones you hear about are the ones that work.
  • Don’t Count on HR — In most organizations, the HR department can help people who want to be helped, but they do not have much power to intervene when someone is not following the rules.  Worse yet, HR may be obligated to investigate reports of substance abuse, which usually means asking your boss if he or she has a drinking problem.  The net effect, though unintended, may be to report you for reporting.I bring this up because I am appalled at how many columns about dealing with difficult people at work advise going to HR.  Unless HR in your organization has a track record for setting things right and maintaining confidentiality, you will be much better off carefully approaching your boss’s boss asking for advice on how to handle a specific situation.  If your boss’s boss is not willing to give advice, get out quickly.  It’s not likely that anything will be done, and you may get in serious trouble for being there.
  • Focus on Behavior, Not Alcohol — If you have to confront your boss, or attempt to go up the line, don’t be the one to bring up drinking.  Your boss will deny that alcohol is a problem, and his or her boss may not want to open that can of worms until it is wriggling all over her desk.  If mistakes have been made or things haven’t been done, focus on those, rather than the drinking that may be the cause.  Even if you know alcohol is the problem, nothing will happen until someone else figures it out for him or herself, that someone being your boss or your boss’s boss.


Be safe; be well; be at peace,

Please NOTE:  Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here.  He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a blogging sabbatical.  Dr. K will return in late-July.

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