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Training Supervisors: A Critical Link in a Successful Substance Abuse Prevention Program

On August 28, 1991, a New York subway operator crashed his train near a station in lower Manhattan. Tragically, five people were killed and more than 200 others were injured. After the accident the operator was tested for drugs and alcohol. He tested positive for alcohol with a blood alcohol content level of .21, more than twice the legal limit in the state of New York.

The next day the New York Times ran a story that quoted two of the operator's supervisors who admitted that they knew the man had a substance abuse problem, but they didn't know what to do about it.

Supervisors and managers are critical links between the implementation of a workplace substance abuse program and its successful maintenance. Without their commitment to the program, your objectives - a safe, healthy work force, and a more productive and profitable business - will go unrealized. However, for supervisors to demonstrate solid commitment to the program, they must first understand what the program is, what it requires, and their role - they must be trained.

Many of the problems encountered when implementing and maintaining a substance abuse workplace program can be avoided if you have the full support and participation of your supervisors and managers. In concert with employee drug education, a thorough, ongoing supervisor training program will support your company's policy statement and, if included, make your drug testing and employee assistance programs more effective.

Where to Start

The first step in beginning a training program is to consider what you want to accomplish. An effective training program should allow supervisors to do the following:

  • Know the company's policy and understand their role in its implementation and maintenance.
  • Observe and document unsatisfactory job performance.
  • Confront workers about unsatisfactory job performance according to company procedures.
  • Understand and be able to recognize the effects of substance abuse in the workplace.
  • Know how to refer an employee suspected of having a substance abuse problem to those who are qualified to make a specific diagnosis and to offer assistance.

Supervisors' Role

Supervisors are generally in the best position to know if one of your employees is having a performance problem. Of course, the problem may be caused by any number of reasons, one of which could be substance abuse. The important point for supervisors to understand is that the company does not expect them to diagnose substance abuse problems. Rather, supervisors are responsible for monitoring job performance and, when a problem arises, follow established company procedures.

Supervisors cannot afford to get involved emotionally in workers' problems; to do so could compromise their ability to effectively deal with the troubled employees. Also, supervisors should be trained not to enable substance abuse problems to continue by looking the other way, lying and covering up for workers, failing to document performance problems, or choosing to not confront employees directly.

The Signs of Substance Abuse

The signs and symptoms of substance abuse are sometimes identical to those of other performance problems such as marital, family, financial or gambling. Nonetheless, supervisors should be trained to recognize these symptoms and know that they could be related to substance abuse.

Generally, these signs and symptoms may be reflected by changes in performance, behavior and appearance, and safety. Performance issues may involve an employee's quality of work, work pace, ability to follow instructions, and successful completion of assignments. Supervisors should look for mistakes, errors in judgment, inability to meet deadlines, sick leave usage, and absenteeism patterns (e.g., Mondays, Fridays, following paydays, etc.).

Sudden behavioral changes may be a sign that an employee is experiencing personal problems. Supervisors should be on the alert for employees who are irritable, moody, argumentative with co-workers, or insubordinate. Troubled workers may lose interest in their appearance or begin receiving complaints about their attitude or appearance from customers, clients, co-workers, or other supervisors.

Unsafe behavior on the job should always be addressed immediately. Substance abusing workers tend to be involved in more accidents than their co-workers, though they are not always the ones injured. Careless or other risky behavior needs to be addressed before an accident occurs.

All such signs and symptoms should be identified and documented.

Who to Turn To

For supervisors to effectively carry out your substance abuse policy, there must be a source of help to which they can turn. Who provides that help may depend on the size of the company and how you have set up your program. For example, if your company has few employees, problems may be referred directly to you as the employer. If you have an internal or outside employee assistance service, supervisors would be instructed to refer matters to that person.

In some companies, supervisors may routinely work with the manager of personnel or safety to address workplace problems. There are numerous ways in which companies choose to deal with substance abuse problems. Regardless of the approach, supervisors must document their observations and efforts to ensure that appropriate action has been taken.

Who Can Perform the Training

Supervisor training does not necessarily require you to hire an outside consultant. The Federal Government's National Clearinghouse on Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI, 800/729-6686) is an excellent source of free or low-cost materials that can serve as the nucleus of a supervisor training program. Available materials include training manuals, booklets, pamphlets, videos and posters, some of which have be developed specifically for supervisor training.

A supervisor or other management-level employee can review the materials and put together a training program with the assistance of the Workplace Helpline (800/843-4971), a service sponsored by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Local business organizations, police departments, or community resources may also be used to supplement or provide training. Employee assistance professionals typically offer supervisor training services.


There is no way to determine whether supervisors could have prevented the tragic New York subway accident. Well trained supervisors are not an absolute defense against the problems associated with substance abuse. However, companies that utilize comprehensive programs that include supervisor training generally report fewer positive results in drug tests as compared to companies that just do drug testing.

The level of support your supervisors give to the company's substance abuse program, combined with the fairness of your program and the firmness of your commitment, will generally influence its potential for success.

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