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My Boss Snorts Cocaine in the Bathroom, Why Won’t They Fire Him? [HorroR Stories]

Dear Madame HR,

I work for a small (about 50 employees) company that is an internet startup. The majority of our staff are phone sales reps, of which I am one, who report to “John” the VP of Sales. About a month ago, I walked into the men’s room and saw John, doing what looked an awful lot like snorting cocaine at the bathroom sink. Later that afternoon, while taking a smoking break with some of my co-workers I discovered that others have seen John doing suspicious things. Our team leader told us a story of how he was with John at a convention in Vegas and at dinner one night, John brought a stripper to the restaurant and proceeded to make out with her all through dinner.

A group of us decided to go talk to the Chief Technology Officer because he is the one executive who has been here longer than 3 months and we trust him. The CTO wasn’t surprised by our story and said he would talk to HR. Well, many weeks have passed and John is still working here. Why haven’t they fired him? Wouldn’t this be immediate grounds for termination? I don’t understand.

–Not so Silent Witness

Dear Not-so,

I love this story! Love, love, love it! Just reading it throws me into a trip down memory lane of all the times someone has sat in my office regaling me with tales of all the debauchery that they have witnessed at the hands of various co-workers/managers/executives. This is my first cocaine/stripper question here at HorroR Stories, but I did have a CEO/prostitute question once. To relive that little bit of glory, click here.

Drug use/abuse is one of those sticky tricky HR things that cause many of us to run from the room while plugging our ears screaming “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!” La la la la!” I’m guessing that your company, despite its category as “internet startup,” has a drug policy. Every boilerplate employee handbook that you can buy off the internet is going to have one. The most troubling bit to your story is the part where he is doing drugs at work, in the men’s restroom no less. This is troubling for many reasons, but numero uno on my list is: Why doesn’t he go into a stall to snort his cocaine? I mean, geez guys, has a lifetime of using urinals made you immune to the idea of privacy and discretion in public bathrooms? Is the little picture of the man on the door some sort of sacred symbol that you have entered into a dome of solitude wherein all secrets will be kept and all transgressions forgiven? I mean, I’m not naïve, I watch the news, I know what the foot bump under the stall wall means, but even in those cases I imagine the final “transaction” happens behind the powder-coated walls of the stall.

So your question is why hasn’t he been fired yet? I mean surely your indignation coupled with the indignation of all the people you told about it, coupled with the CTO’s should count for something, right? Sure it does! But does that actually matter? No!

Depending on which state you are living/working in, what your employer can do about an employee they may suspect is using drugs is limited. In the state I work in, CA, it’s extremely limited. Honestly, your “witness testimony” is a little flimsy and drug testing is tricky and usually can only be performed pre-hire. Unless there is a safety concern, which I imagine doesn’t exist in a telesales department such as yours, or you specifically have a random drug testing policy (and you have a legitimate reason for that policy which usually boils down to either safety concerns or you have government contracts) there really isn’t one course of action that your employer can take that isn’t fraught with thorns.

To make matters even harder: let’s say I confront Frosty the Snowman and he starts crying and sniffling (sniffling-HA!) about how he has a problem, and boo hoo he wants to get help and boo hoo, go into rehab. Now my goose is surely cooked because I have to “reasonably” accommodate employees who want to enter into a drug treatment program and I have to protect his privacy. And trust me, my definition of “reasonably” differs from the state’s definition. I have gone down this road before with an employee who had an alcohol problem and an internet connection, because this boy knew how to work the system. That, coupled with his manager’s complete unwillingness to deal with the issues that had nothing to do with his love of vodka (more on that later), basically allowed him to hold my company hostage for almost three years (maybe longer because I quit before he did).

“But Madame HR,” you might be saying to yourself right about now, “I thought your motto for 2013 was Compassion? You’re not showing much compassion for those who may be afflicted with drug or alcohol dependence.“  Shut up. You asked the question. You are the one telling the world about Frosty’s drug habits, building your own little narco-squad of telesales reps out to get the evil VP of Sales. Look, I love to hate an evil VP of Sales as much as the next HR Manager, but enough is enough already. And yes, he shouldn’t be snorting cocaine in the bathroom, and yes, he shouldn’t be bringing strippers to dinners with co-workers even if they are in Vegas and technically “off duty.” So, ok, righteous indignation makes the world go round, so get your fill and then do your job.

A conversation between a savvy HR Manager and his/her C-level executive that he/she reports to regarding this topic would probably go like this:

Savvy HR Manager: John may or may not be snorting cocaine in the bathroom. One of the employees thinks he saw him doing it.

C-level executive: What do we do about it? Do you think it is true?

Savvy HR Manager: The employee who told me said that some other employees had seen some “suspicious” behavior. I don’t know what that means exactly.

C-level executive: Let’s search his desk!

Savvy HR Manager: Probably not a good idea.

C-level executive: Why?

Savvy HR Manager: Let’s say we find something, what are you prepared to do with that?

C-level executive: We’ll fire him!

Savvy HR Manager: Do you want to fire him?

C-level executive: Of course, it totally makes sense that he’s snorting cocaine in the bathroom, he’s terrible at his job!

And there is the rub, dear readers. He’s terrible at his job! (For my purposes I’m assuming he is, you don’t mention his job performance, but I need him to be bad at his job to make my point). Any savvy HR Manager when confronted with this situation will deal with it by focusing on the job performance of the employee. Usually someone who needs a little “pick me up” to get through the day isn’t doing a stellar job at the tasks they are supposed to be doing instead. Management should start documenting that. Write him up for his bad results or his poor management skills. Give him goals that are measurable to save his job all with the intent of not saving his job. “John, we expected x, y, z results from you this quarter, you did not meet those goals. You have 1 month to improve.” Something like that. I will never, never, never, never, NEVER, NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER mention cocaine in his presence. NEVER.  Hopefully this works, hopefully he’s not smarter than me and figures the whole thing out and checks himself in to detox. Then I have to get legal counsel involved to see how I can bump this bozo. And that’s never pretty.

How’s that for “Compassion?” Actually pretty darn good, if you think about it. If it were you, wouldn’t you rather be judged by your performance than your addictions? Or your vices? Employees are funny. They want privacy until they don’t, they want fairness for no one but themselves. I’m a fan of giving people a chance, huge honking fan. I love me a good employee in rehab! I respect anyone who has a problem like this and is trying to fix it. It’s a tough road, I get it. I’ve watched Intervention dozens of times (all at once, in one sitting, my husband had to hold an intervention to get me to stop watching Intervention. I stormed out. It was ugly). Just think what a wonderful world it would be if everyone showed up for work every morning and spent all day just doing their job. Just think about it for a minute—ahhhh! That’s what I like to call HR porn.

So to answer your question, the reason he hasn’t been fired could be one of two: 1. Your HR Department is doing what I suggest above and trying to document performance problems so they can get him out the door, or 2. He’s a fantastic VP of Sales and worth all the cocaine snorting and stripper kissing they have to put up with to keep him there. Number 2 is a slippery slope, but I’ve worked for internet startups before, and y’all have a wicked tolerance for risk. So again, I say, time to focus on doing your job and forget about what you saw in the bathroom.

Good Luck out there,

Mme HR

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