Starting a conversation with an employee about their drug and/or alcohol use is, in a word, terrifying. If you’re like some people, you may have dealt with it before and not with great results. It’s very common to hear denials, and you may have even experienced some anger and blowback from a person suffering from a substance use disorder.

You’ve probably heard things like:

“I don’t have a problem.”

“What does that matter to you?”

“It’s none of your business what I do in my free time.”

“It’s not that big a deal; I only do it sometimes.”

You see, almost every heavy drinker, problem drinker, alcoholic and addict will suffer from denial. Nobody wants to admit that they have a problem that they can’t solve on their own. Just remember that denial is common, and you’re bound to hear when you try to help the afflicted.

So, how do you start a conversation about alcohol or drug abuse, knowing that you’re likely to hear a blatant denial in the form of a lie? First of all, it’s important to help the person feel like it’s not a personal attack, and that you are coming from a place of caring and compassion.

Avoid “you” statements.

“Hey Jeff, you’ve been drinking a lot lately and you need to do something about it.”

“Simon, you always smell like a brewery, and you need to get some help.”

“You’re an alcoholic Susan, and you need to stop drinking so much.”

“You’re obviously an addict Jason, and you need to stop using.”

Use “I” statements instead to show that you care about them and care what happens to them and that you are genuinely concerned for them. It’s vitally important that they be able to keep their dignity intact by not being accusatory. You’re only role at the moment is to let them know that their behavior worries you and that you are concerned for their safety and wellbeing.

“Hey Jeff, I really enjoy your company, and you do a great job here, but I’ve noticed that you’ve been hitting it pretty hard lately. I would hate to see anything interfere with your job or your health. Is there anything going on that I can help with?”

“Hey Simon, I’ve enjoyed having you as part of the team and like how well you do your job, but is there anything going on in your life that maybe has been bothering you lately? I’m just worried about you and want you to know that I’m here to help.”

 “Susan, you’re one of the smartest and most talented people I know. But recently, you’ve been coming in late and missing a lot of work. You don’t seem to be yourself, and I get the feeling there’s been some drinking going on. If you’re going through some things, I’d be happy to help you get some assistance. I’d really hate to see you lose your job, or worse.”

 “Jason, I’ve always enjoyed having you here and love your work ethic. But I’ve noticed that on Mondays you don’t seem to be yourself, and there have been a couple of conflicts with the other employees. That’s so unlike you. I’d hate to see any more arguments around here, and I’d hate for your job to be endangered. IS there anything we can talk about to see if I can help?”

Remember that however you approach it, this is a very sensitive topic and it’s essential to keep your emotions in check when having the conversation. This means that you can’t get angry or show emotions when and if they reveal something shocking to you. Keep an even keel and listening carefully with sympathy allows them to open up to you, which sets the stage for recovery and treatment.

It is not at all uncommon for the afflicted to lash out emotionally, but again, it is essential that you stay calm, both in demeanor and response. They may certainly attempt to downplay the problem and may even try to joke about it with you. One of the ways you can counter this behavior is to verbalize consequences they may face if they refuse to get help.

What consequences they may face is up to you as an employer, but you can start off by letting them know that you will no longer cover for them if they miss work or get into arguments with co-workers. Let them know you will no longer enable them in any of the ways that you’ve likely been shielding from the consequences of their actions to this point.

Of all the important things to remember when detailing possible consequences is to let them know you’re taking a stand against their alcohol or drug abuse, not against them as a person that you genuinely care about.

Confronting an employee about their drug or alcohol addiction is never easy. Keep in mind that the alternative is to watch them continue to destroy their life, to say nothing of them keeping a job with you. Remain focused on the long-term picture and that you are their ally in this. The goal of having this conversation in the first place is to get them started on the road to recovery. If you avoid having this conversation with them, know that they will continue to blow up their life and they may never get the chance to experience all the joys and love they can get from living a life free from alcohol and drugs.