Secretary To Boozing Bank President!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an alcoholic boss:

I am a private secretary for a bank president who is an alcoholic and I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by the working conditions that his alcoholism is creating. He is in a constant state of inebriation and frequently is so drunk he cannot function. I am disgusted by his behavior (slurred words, frequent naps, inability to concentrate, shakiness, alcohol odor, and inappropriate behavior in general). He used to be incredibly competent and a great boss, but this situation is intolerable. I feel absolutely helpless.

I have discussed this situation with the Human Resource Director (who is afraid for his job and does nothing) and with the Chief Financial Officer (who is unwilling to inform the Board of Directors of this situation). Although the bank president technically works for the Board, they are appointed (more or less) by him, and the Board (I’m sure) is somewhat intimidated by him. I realize that the Board has a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the bank’s welfare, but this is a very small town with no anonymity to speak of and everyone is afraid to address this situation.I am extremely competent in my position and have been his secretary for approximately 20 years. I have been slowly having to take over many of his responsibilities; I realize that this “enabling” is hindering him from any sort of epiphany with regard to his problem, but if I fail to pick up his slack, he will accuse me of being inefficient. His wife is an alcoholic also, so I cannot approach her with regard to his problem. He has virtually no friends with whom I could discuss this.Resigning from my job is not an option. I am financially bound to keeping this position until my retirement, which means 20 more years with him, if he lives that long. His health is precarious at best.Do you have any advice that might help me? Thank you.

Signed, Desperate for a Solution

Dear Desperate for a Solution:

I am making a couple of assumptions: One, is that you absolutely are sure that the condition of your boss is due to alcohol and/or drugs and not due to an illness. Either would need treatment, but for different reasons. I am also assuming that your concerns are prompted by this problem and not because you are in trouble yourself and are looking for a way to distract HR from your own issues. I know that sounds cynical, but that kind of thing is not unheard of. It would not lessen the need to do something about the problem, but it would indicate that you might have troubles yourself down the line, unrelated to your reporting of this. So, you would need to be aware that reporting this would likely not stop your other issues.

But, assuming that the situation is just as you presented it, I will reiterate what I said in my original message: You will have to make a commitment to do something, and that something will have to involve writing or talking to someone about this matter. Unless you are willing to do that, you know that nothing will change. Others may be waiting for you to say something to force the issue. Everyone who has an interest in this matter needs to be willing to take some action. Some thoughts:

1. Keep this in mind: If your boss is confronted and is helped to deal with his condition, he will have nothing but appreciation for your efforts. I’ve never yet known a recovered alcoholic who resented the ones who helped him, as long as they acted in good faith and tried to do the right thing. If he is confronted and reacts badly and never improves, he MAY resent your role, but I doubt he would fire you for it. If you approach it in the optimal way, there will be others involved, and I doubt he could fire everyone. When was the last time you heard of someone being condemned by others for intervening to help an addict of any kind? On the contrary, those people are nearly always hailed as heroes. Or, when it appeared there was something problematic happening in a business, when was the last time you heard of someone looking badly for trying to use appropriate means to correct it? I don’t think you have anything to fear from direct action. What is more likely to cause problem are hints and innuendos or anonymous actions that seem more spiteful than helpful. You really have only two choices: Put up with it and know that you are not doing the right thing or do the right thing. I’m sure you’re aware of that as well. But of course, it IS a difficult decision and I would never indicate otherwise. There is the fact of a long-standing work relationship and friendship, a dread of the discomfort that will likely result and worry about your job future. I applaud you for wanting to take action about the matter and hope you will continue with your resolve.

2. In spite of the personal issues, try to take emotion out of the mix. The fact is that you are an executive secretary and you are aware of a serious problem. An executive secretary isn’t like a clerk. You have insights that others don’t have–and an awareness of the severity of issues related to the bank. You don’t have any reason to be ashamed, embarrassed or hesitant. When your boss was in his right mind (and that’s the only way to consider it) he would have told you to stop him if he ever got like this.

3. Write a letter to the HR person, outlining your concerns. I would structure it this way: *A summary first paragraph that can’t be ignored or overlooked, that says you feel the behavior of Mr. Morris (to use a name) over the last (time frame) indicates an excessive use of alcohol and you are concerned about his physical and mental well-being, his actions on and off the job, the financial decisions he may make and the reputation of the bank. The purpose of the letter is to express that concern and give examples, as well as to provide documentation in case your job should be threatened as a result of this notification. *A list of examples, to show a chronology of his behaviors. Emphasize a mixture of things that indicate lack of focus on work, times when you have had to intervene to correct something, situations that indicate his health is suffering from it and so forth. *A repetition of the concerns you have: That he will harm himself, that he drives back and forth to work in that condition and could kill or harm someone else, that he represents the financial stability of the bank to many and this behavior could shake or even destroy that trust, that his decisions cannot be keen when he is intoxicated and it may result in errors, and that his mental condition while intoxicated might lead him to do things that he would never do while sober, as it relates to personal and professional matters. (Let them read into that whatever they want to.) (Incidentally, if you have a loved one in that town, picture them dead after being hit by your boss when he’s driving while drunk and you will see the vital nature of this action.)*You have hesitated to say anything because Mr. Morris has been so incredibly competent in the past and has been such a great boss. But, you realize that it would not only be morally reprehensible for you to ignore the harm he is doing to himself, it could even be potentially criminal for you to allow him to function everyday without comment–knowing that his actions could result in harm to others. You have also decided that it would be ethically wrong to allow him to continue as he is, when it is not possible for him to be making the kind of sound judgments that are necessary in his position. And finally, you know that since the bank is federally insured, there are some potential liabilities for everyone if something were to occur that threatened the stability of the bank. (You may have some different ideas than those, but the issue is that you need to say it and say it strongly. You may not think all of those things are likely–but I think you will agree they are certainly potentials.)*You are concerned about your job security in the event Mr. Morris reacts badly if your name is linked to this. Therefore, you are trusting HR to support you in your efforts to help Mr. Morris as well as the bank. *You know that HR may have policies and responses that they are required to follow, but you have some possible approaches to suggest and would like to have HR let you know when you can meet with them and what they anticipate will happen. (I’ll mention those approaches in a moment.) *Close with a last sentence that says you realize this is very awkward for everyone involved, but a solution is necessary. It will not be enough for Mr. Morris to say he won’t come to work drunk. He needs help and the situation needs to be permanently resolved–and his fellow professionals as well as co-workers, should offer him that help. You’ll notice that I don’t include mentioning that you’ve talked to the HR manager and the CFO already.

You know these people well, so there’s no point in putting them on the defensive. After you send the email with that attachment (and I only recommend that because some programs allow you to show that it was received) or hand deliver the letter, you can tell him verbally, “I’m sending this to you Frank, as though we’ve never talked about it before. This way we can start fresh with it. But I mean to follow-up as far as it takes, so I’d like for us to be united in our concerns about Mr. Morris and the bank.” If you want to give a copy to the CFO, do so and tell him the same thing. THEY know they should have acted already. This gives them a chance to do the right thing as though it’s the first time they heard of it. Let them be heroes. That will also provide you with additional protection if things don’t work as they should.

4. Here are some things that can be done to help: *The Board of Directors will need to lead in the efforts. If they feel this will come out publicly some way, they’ll likely do it just to avoid a scandal, if for not ethical reasons. *The board can require Mr. Morris to seek treatment as a condition for his continued employment. If there are no local resources, depending on the size of the city, what would be the closest place? Have that location available. Is there an AAA chapter that would know of resources? Provide that number. Don’t make it easy for them to say they didn’t know what to do next.*In the meantime, your boss should not continue to come to work if it is known he is driving or interacting with the public, while drunk. You can’t require the board to make that decision, but you can call HR every time you observe that he is drunk and ask them what is being done. *How is he staying drunk at work? Where is he keeping his alcohol? What is he drinking? When he’s not there, take a photo of the stash, to show what you’re dealing with. Or, describe what you see as to how much and how often he goes through a bottle. If you can show that one-day the Jim Beam bottle is half full and the next day it is empty that says a lot. That would be something to include in your opening letter. If he goes out, determine where he does his drinking. That may be an issue as well, if they are selling him alcohol when they know he is already drunk. *If you or anyone there knows Mr. Morris’ physician, that person could be contacted and asked to be a resource for intervening with the problem. *If Mr. Morris attends church regularly his pastor could be contacted and asked to assist. *If Mr. Morris has family members locally, other than his alcoholic wife (who also should be getting some attention) perhaps they could become involved. *The attorney for the bank would certainly advise action, so perhaps he could be involved. *Any employees who have commented on or complained about the situation should be asked to make a statement about what they have observed. *The local police chief or county sheriff for the area in which Mr. Morris lives may need to be aware of it, since Mr. Morris obviously is driving when he is not fit to do so. Or, the county attorney or district attorney could be contacted. The purpose of notifying these people is not to create more problems for Mr. Morris, but to have another possible resource should Mr. Morris not cooperate. He should NOT be driving. *Any close friends that the board knows about–or that you are aware of–and that do not contribute to his problems–could be asked for their support and help. At some point, Mr. Morris will need to be talked to by the Board of Directors. The chairman of the board will likely be the one. Whatever that person does could make the difference literally in life or death for your boss. And could make the difference in the trust people in your area have in their bank. This matter is at too high a level for the HR person to be the only one dealing with it. But he’s a good place to start and continue to go to, unless you are directed to work specifically with someone else.

5. In the mean time, stop saving your boss from his errors. You are correct that your help is not helping him, it only allows him to cover up his mistakes. If you have vacation or sick time, take some time off and let him sink on his own while this is being worked on. Let HR know that you feel uncomfortable working in that environment and that you want to know action is being taken to make it better. Or keep working, help when you must, but report every error or problem to HR and the Board of Directors. At some point you will have to stop correcting things or handling situations, but if you don’t feel you can do that right away, at least someone ought to know what is happening.

6. If your boss talks to you about this–or if you want to talk to him about it–be honest and direct. Have a mini-speech ready that says you are doing this to help the bank, protect others and help him as well. Don’t allow yourself the emotion of sympathy for him. He is putting many people at risk, both physically and financially. He is also creating an unpleasant work environment and should be held responsible for that. Be the executive secretary that takes care of business in this case. If he gets angry, do not argue about it. You may want to have a phrase you can use, and repeat it like a broken record. “Mr. Morris, I’m doing what you would want me to do if you were thinking about it the way you used to.” “Mr. Morris, I’m not going to discuss this until you have gotten treatment for your problem.” Or, whatever seems best to you. Until he has gotten treatment he’ll have a million reasons why you were mistaken, so there’s no point in getting caught up with that.

7. If, in spite of all you’ve done, your HR person or the Board of Directors, refuses to take action, contact the doctor, lawyer, pastor and police on your own. You’re not just talking about his drinking, you’re talking about the potential problems and harm of his drinking, so something must be done by someone.

8. As a very last resort, according to the size of your town, consider the local newspaper or a radio or TV station that has an inquiring reporter. Banks and their stability are news and drunk drivers are news. So, if nothing else maybe someone would like to videotape him leaving the bank and driving home in his car in that condition. That would be a terrible way to have to deal with this, and as I said, it would be the last resort. But if nothing else worked that might be all you could do to stop the problem. You’ll notice my concern is much more for what he could do to others. If driving is never an issue because he doesn’t drive, then this step might not be needed.

9. If you get the slightest hint that you may have repercussions over this, contact an attorney and get a consultation about your options. You will likely find that you have many protections based on the nature of the organization and the appropriateness of your responses about a genuine problem.10. The final thing is to decide if this is the only employment possible that you could have. You need to take action, but if it is not successful you will need to decide if you want to stay or go. So, as you can see, there are a number of things that can be done. The key is for everyone to have the courage to do them. I hope these thoughts encourage some ideas of your own and give you a foundation for action. You sound as though you are a person of ethics. This will be one of those times in your life when you can show them clearly. There have been so many, many tragedies involving situations like this, in which afterwards everyone has pointed fingers and said, “Why didn’t they do something?” And many have said, “I wish I would have stepped forward.” I don’t want you to be in that situation. If you wish to do so and have the time, please let us know the results in this case.Voice at work requires courage to correct dangerous behavior. Without it the spirit of WEGO is not present.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.