This week, the University of Southern California terminated Steve Sarkisian, their head football coach. The firing came after a cavalcade of headlines that Sarkisian, essentially the CEO of a multi-million dollar enterprise, was increasingly showing up at practices, team functions, and even games allegedly under the influence of alcohol. The move came one day after Sarkisian took an indefinite leave of absence to enter treatment for alcoholism.
Obviously, we here at the Employment Discrimination Report wish Coach Sarkisian nothing but the best in his attempts to embrace recovery and put his life back on track. But the way USC handled the situation with a high-profile employee offers instruction on how to handle employees with substance abuse issues out of the public eye.
Under the Americans with Disability Act and most state anti-discrimination statutes, alcoholism meets the definition of a disability. But that should not be taken to mean an employer has to put up with an employees drinking on the job or showing up drunk simply because they are an alcoholic. The disease of alcoholism meets the definition of a disability, which means that an employer can’t take into account that an employee is an alcoholic when making employment decisions. However, an employer may maintain a blanket prohibition on drinking at work that applies to both alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike (If this is not in your handbook, it is well past time for an update).
An employee who can’t meet those standards because of drinking may be disciplined, whether they are an alcoholic or not. Taking Coach Sarkisian as an example, while he self-identifies as an alcoholic, USC can state that he was terminated for showing up intoxicated on the job, not because of his disease. The moral of the story is that the employer must set policies that separate the disease from conduct. This will allow employers to deal with employees caught drinking on the job yet still be in compliance with anti-discrimination statutes.
Feel free to contact our Labor and Employment Department with any further questions