Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Managing Addicts

A few weeks ago, a group of aspiring leaders asked me my biggest management challenge.  This is where the discussion went.

This is not about any one person, or any one place.  I’ve known and seen enough who fall into this category that I can say that without artifice.  

What do you do when a tenured professor is an addict?  

In my travels, alcohol and pain meds are the addictions I’ve seen most often.  But the substance of choice is of only peripheral interest, assuming it can be obtained legally.  The real issue is erratic, unpredictable behavior that never quite rises to the level of actionable misconduct, unless and until it abruptly does, and people want to know why you didn’t do something sooner.

As a manager, this is an incredibly difficult area.

Some measures are relatively easy.  Free-flowing open bars at office Christmas parties have been relegated to the dustbin of history, along with typing pools and carbon copies.  HR offices routinely (and rightly) make available Employee Assistance Programs to help people get themselves back on track.  (Contrary to popular myth, EAPs really are confidential; I have absolutely no idea who on campus takes advantage of them, and I don’t want to know.  If you need help, get help.)  

But those just nibble at the edges.  What about the professor who keeps a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, and who is known to be useless after lunch?  The one with the flamboyant mood swings and fits of paranoia?  The one who periodically shows up smelling like a distillery, and who seems to pick more fights on those days?  

In a perfect world, they’d be grateful for intervention and would willingly agree to treatment.  And I have personally seen that happen.  In one case, many years ago and in another setting, I escorted a visibly drunk professor to HR.  He took umbrage at being called out, and got up to leave.  I told him that if he got in his car to drive home, I’d call the police to report a DUI, and he’d have a much bigger problem.  He stayed, and we were able to get past the denial.  After one of the most intense conversations I’ve ever had, he agreed to a medical leave for rehab.  When he came back months later, he was a different and much happier person.

But that was the exception.

Documentation can be challenging, because frequently, colleagues don’t want to sign their names to anything.  They’re afraid and want the problem to go away, but they want to keep their own hands clean.  And in a tenured and unionized environment, the burden of proof to fire somebody is forbiddingly high.  If you don’t have a smoking gun or the equivalent, that option is effectively off the table.

Which means that you have a ticking time bomb on your hands.  

The faculty role can be enabling.  It’s uncommonly autonomous.  It allows for a wide range of personal styles.  The hours can be rearranged.  Peers tend to cut a lot of slack, out of a general sense that autonomy is worth preserving.  The professor role also involves frequently working closely with students, who are inclined to give significant benefit of the doubt.  They may even find certain behaviors funny or endearing, at least for a while.  A charming narcissist can work the system for years, while colleagues walk on eggshells and hope against hope that nothing bad happens.  The combination of power over students, a high-trust environment, chemically-lowered inhibitions, and uncommon privacy can lead to some dark places.

I’ve read about managing addictions, but I’ve never read about managing addicts.  I’ve been blessedly free of the former, but I’ve had to address the latter repeatedly.  And in all the professional development programs I’ve seen and/or attended, I’ve never seen the topic broached.  It’s radioactive.

But it’s also real.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a good treatment of this topic?  Have you seen the situation handled well?  Is there a better way?

And in a tenured and unionized environment, the burden of proof to fire somebody is forbiddingly high.

I don't know about "forbiddingly high". I've seen at least one case where administration could have done it, but tried very hard to ignore the issue for another reason: the human element. As DD very much knows, administrators are people too and it is very hard to fire someone you have worked closely with for many many years, especially when that professor is a superstar when sober. Firing someone has enormous consequences for the rest of that person's life (that pitiful professor salary may not look so great, but losing the pension is devastating); that must a very heavy burden on administration.
Good treatment of the topic? No, but I don't travel in administrator or HR circles. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be in the high-tech part of private industry. What do GE, GM, and GOOOGLE do (picking some G names) with problem engineers? And what if the addiction qualifies as a disability?

Handled well? Looks to me like you nailed it. One other option is the "you can't fire me, I quit/retire" response. As for the "dark places" you allude too, well, I hope you never have to deal with a few cases I happened to witness or hear about. There must be lots more that only HR knows about.

By the way, your remark about "tenure" strikes me as a dodge. If you have a union contract, there is no such thing as tenure. There is only what the contract grants, and that is negotiable. (Where I work, without a union, what you refer to as "tenure" is also contractual and subject to revocation for specific actions.) Documenting the gradual or sudden drop in productivity, and not enabling it, is your job. Your example of threatening to call the police in a DUI case was the right thing to do, especially if you follow up on it. The police are very good at documenting simple facts like having alcohol on campus, they have the right to enter any room on campus (doubly so with cause), and their reports tend to carry a lot of weight.
I saw this issue handled well at my previous institution. They had a substance abuse intervention team headed by a trained faculty member. That group basically had responsibility for the faculty or staff with the substance abuse problem. They functioned almost like an AA buddy/mentor. For folks who continued to work or returned to work after rehab, they checked on them every morning - on time?, sober? how are things? Very intrusive, but it seemed to work.

I saw this issue handled very badly at another institution and they lost a great faculty member - great teacher, great researcher. He died of his alcoholism in his mid-forties.
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