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How to Manage Supervisory Boundaries Amidst the Addiction Epidemic

Ethical Considerations


Companies must learn to balance the realities of the issues staff face with corporate risk-management responsibilities. Ethically, business organizations cannot create policies that allow or encourage managers to become therapists or counselors for their staff. Ethical boundaries must be clearly delineated and maintained between supervisors and managers and their employees. At the same time, staff members struggling with substance misuse must be restricted from providing services temporarily. There may be circumstances in which an employee is removed from face-to-face interaction with clients and in which termination is the most appropriate course of action.


Good policies and practices concerning these issues can teach managers how to appropriately identify potential staff problems early on and can give them the resources they need to effectively deal with problems before they threaten an employee’s job or the quality of client service.


Resisting the temptation to diagnose and provide counseling can be a difficult challenge for managers, supervisors and HR staff who face potential misuse among employees. Finding the proper balance of clinical knowledge and managerial strategy is critical to responding in a way that best serves the employee and limits liability for the employer.


General Tips for Supervisory Conversations with Employees Suspected of Substance Misuse Problems


Problems with job behavior, workplace performance and ability to fulfill responsibilities can tip off a supervisor to the possibility that substance misuse is an issue for an employee. When broaching the subject with the employee, the supervisor should keep the following in mind:

  • Focus on the work.

  • Focus on what can be seen/observed (performance and behavior).

  • Describe the behavior – what the employee did or said.

  • Do not diagnose the employee.

  • Do not be the employee’s counselor or therapist.

  • Do not make assumptions about why the behavior is occurring.

  • Refer the employee to help if he or she might need it.

  • Focus on topics that are legitimately part of the supervisory dialogue and do not discuss ones that are not.

  • Remember that the supervisor’s job is to improve performance.

For more information on this topic or to review Recovery Business Association's complete guide for executives, managers and human resource staff on how to address substance use prevention, treatment and recovery in the workplace, click here.