Friday, November 14, 2008

What is an Alcoholic?

A commenter describes his drinking habits and says they don't interfere with work. He wants to know how I define "alcoholic"?

I think he and I agree that the question turns on how your drinking affects your work, short term and long term. Since everybody's physiology is unique, I don't think the definition can depend on how much someone drinks. What would put me in the hospital (I have a severe reaction to alcohol), might just be a thirst-quencher for someone else.

One problem with this approach is that alcohol definitely tends to take the edge off one's judgment. I have dealt with a number of worker/drinkers who believe their work is not affected by their drinking--but the reason I was asked to speak with them is that their work effectiveness has been dropping noticeably, according to their managers.

I see lots of moral judging about alcohol consumption, which in turn leads to a lot of defensiveness on the part of those who enjoy drinking. For me, I don't care if your work is affected by alcohol, M&Ms, or listening to too much opera. If something is affecting your work, then that's an issue for your manager and possibly your co-workers.

If it's affecting your health (long or short term), that's your business, and perhaps the business of your family. Of course, if it's affecting your driving, then it's my business as long as we're sharing a road. I won't accept rides from people who have been drinking--or who might be otherwise impaired.

In short, I'm concerned about your alcohol habits only insofar as they affect me. It's an individual judgment, not a stereotype--but it's definitely a sterotype for lots of people, something alcoholics have to live with in today's society.


Unknown said...

I agree with you in general, the other person's behavior is my business if it affects me.

Now let's slide into the gray area. What if the other person drinks and beats his wife and I know about it? I know many people who will step into the other family's situation at this point.

I don't have a good answer. Your thoughts?

Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Dwayne asks: "What if the other person drinks and beats his wife and I know about it"

Here's the way I deal with such problems (and they come up all the time in my consulting practice, though not necessarily beatings):

1 Simplify the situation by removing extraneous elements. In this case, does it matter if the woman is his wife? No. Does it matter if the guy is drunk? No. So we reduce the question to this: "What if the other person beats someone and I know about it?"

2. The answer is then simple. In fact, if I see a crime being committed (and battery is a crime), I report it to the police. That's their job.

3. I definitely stay out of the middle.

Now, what did I mean by saying I often find this situation in my consulting work? As a consultant, I tend to see lots of things that the management of an organization doesn't see, and some of them are criminal or against organizational rules.

For example, I once became aware that a certain employee was stealing computer equipment from the company. Is this a problem for me? Even if I were brought in to consult on the problem of theft, I would still start by reporting the theft to the responsible manager, probably the one who brought me in.

So, Dwayne, does that clear it up for you? (Probably not, so let's go at it.)

Brian said...

In the case of an employee, co-worker or other business associate, I think its a mistake to discuss their drinking. Doing so is a kind of enabling. In fact, by asking "What is an Alcoholic?", you are already reframing the issue - you don't need to know the answer to be able to broach the issue of the person's performance.

So I say focus on the on-the-job behavior. If they bring up the subject of drinking, suggest counseling or AA. Even with a PhD, you're not qualified to give that kind of care - it's way above my pay grade.

The "alcoholic" label also enables the labeller to evade responsibility for actually talking about the person's behavior.

Gerald M. Weinberg said...

I agree with Brian.

I make an exception when someone is drinking on the job (unless it's a job that requires drinking, like a brew master or salesperson entertaining clients).

But in any case, it's a matter of performance, and certainly the most you can say is "drinking," not "alcoholic." It's not our job--not mine, anyway.

Unknown said...

Jerry, well yes, that does make the situation far less gray or not clear than before. The situation I mentioned (one person beating another) is a crime and that is the job of law enforcement.

After a day of thought, it seems that when I (used to) say, "but I want to 'help' before going to the police" I am telling myself "I am smart enough to correct this without going to the police."

I am probably NOT smart enough to help and it pains me to admit that.

I think it was Clint Eastwood who said in one movie or another "A man ought to know his limitations."

Brian said...

dwayne said, "I think it was Clint Eastwood who said in one movie or another "A man ought to know his limitations.""

Yeah, in "Dirty Harry". He said it to the same character to whom he said, "Personnel? That's for idiots!"

And what we're talking about here is what's appropriate to say and do when dealing with unsatisfactory on-the-job performance. Not in characterizing individuals' weaknesses, however obvious they may be.