I recently came across an interesting article in the LA Times . The article examined addiction in the workplace and the relevant costs incurred by firms. According to Timothy Dimoff, a former narcotics detective, 5 to 17% of American workers arrive at their jobs under the influence of drugs or alcohol. And based on what the experts have to say, the remaining 83 to 95% could be itching to get home to get plastered. Don’t believe me? Then read on.

Bottom line, bottom of glass

Considering that US companies lose an estimated $75 billion a year in decreased productivity, lost work time, accidents, and related health expenses, human resource managers are paying attention, fast. Of course, what surprises me is that it’s usually these same managers who go out of their way to make the work environment friendlier. One method of achieving this has been company outings that usually entail drinking. Hence the deeper issue.

Before we consider the conflict of interest that many human resource managers face, let us consider this bit of information: for every dollar that an employer invests in assistance programs, 5 to $16 in substance abuse related costs are saved. This said, instead of losing $75 billion in lost productivity, companies could have spent a fraction of the $75 billion loss and come out ahead, not just financially, but in human resource loss alone.

Mixing drinks and signals

There is definitely a double standard, or mixed drinks, hmm, I mean mixed signals , if you prefer, that is sent to employees at most companies. No need to get into the topic of drinking at a company event and then getting behind the wheel, since this issue has been covered to death in the media. But what about drinking alone?

At a former employer, the big boss asked me to take the company out, yes, the entire company for some drinks. I asked what he meant by “a drink” —- he said open bar, but to not let the others know this. He added, “Let them think that any time they could be billed for their drinks.” This was not done for financial reasons, but for control. Tell staffers that they are free to “download” all the pints they want, and you are asking for trouble. Especially when the company’s unofficial name was Gin & Tonic Incorporated.

In fact, one VP even joked about having airplane-like drink trays for those hard-to-get-by Fridays. As you can imagine, the VP was popular with the staff.

Good cop, Bad cop

If the VP was the good cop, the bad cop was the COO, who decided that alcohol during and after work hours would be barred when at the office. This is normal; after all, most companies do not allow drinking on the job — especially the larger companies. As you can imagine, the company I was referring to was a smaller one. But it is indeed the smaller companies that are most vulnerable; they employ 80% of the workforce, but are the least likely to conduct drug testing.

What are employees addicted to in the large and small companies?

The buck stops here

Conversely, 90% of the Fortune 500 companies conduct pre-employment testing, hence the popularity of many “snake oil” methods of getting away with stuff before interviews. While some companies may consider everything from surveillance operations to hiring undercover agents, many HR experts consider these efforts obtrusive, and even advise companies not to pursue this route as they open themselves up for privacy lawsuits.

Let’s face it: if companies suddenly start to care about these issues, it is not for the welfare of their staff. I may get flack for this comment, but HR managers care about efficiency and the bottom line. Replacing any employee is expensive, finding a troubled employee is doubly so. What is not so hard to swallow is that substance abusers are 16 times as likely to make use of health care benefits and 6 times more likely to file for workers’ compensation, according to the Labor Department.

What troubles many managers is that it’s not only the hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin that are causing problems; 25% of workplace drug abuse involves pharmaceuticals such as painkillers and tranquilizers. It may be easy to detect powder on someone’s nose, but when the drugs of choice are legal, how do you pick these things up?

Pour out a little liquor

Cocaine and other hard drugs are obviously an issue, but what about alcohol? After all, students are fed liquor at B-Schools, where junior staff is invited to drink fests at firms. Why is this okay?

If you think that these numbers are alarming, consider this: look around the office or think of your circle of friends. How many do you think drink too much, party too hard and always live on the edge? Staggering number? Well, now ask yourself, how many actually admit to their excess? Not that many. So if 5 to 17% admitted to having a problem at work, what do you think the real percentage is?

Much higher, but how high ?

The real number is obviously higher, and what you should do if you know someone who is troubled is detach yourself from the company and help them as a friend. But again, this is no easy task. First, help them admit that they have a problem — and this cannot be achieved by blaming anyone.

What you should do is facilitate the steps for them, let them know that they are not alone, and through a mix of rationale and emotion, explain to them what they are doing to their health, colleagues, family, and career. Only then will they see the issue at hand.

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com.