Firing an alcoholic employee

A worker who is very close to being fired following months of progressive discipline has just informed his manager that he is an alcoholic. Can we still fire him?

Tim Mitchell
Question: A worker who is very close to being fired following months of progressive discipline has just informed his manager that he is an alcoholic, is seeking treatment and gave him a letter stating: “I apologize for all of my recent problems at work, which are directly related to my alcoholism.” Do we have to start from square one and accommodate him? Or can we proceed with a termination?

Answer: Terminating an employee after being informed that he is an alcoholic is a dangerous course to follow.

An employer is not required accommodate an employee who merely drinks too much or who misses work due to excessive partying.

The duty to accommodate arises only if it is established that the employee is under a disability. Alcoholism is a recognized disability and alcoholic employees are protected against discrimination by human rights legislation.

Accordingly, it will likely be necessary to accommodate the employee if he is actually an alcoholic and the conduct that has brought him to the brink of dismissal is conduct related to that disability.

That said, an employer is entitled to proof of the employee’s disability; it need not accept an employee’s own diagnosis of alcoholism.

You have not indicated what sort of misconduct the employee has committed. An employer is not necessarily required to overlook serious employment offences committed by an alcoholic employee. However, misconduct that is attributable to a mental or physical disability cannot provide a basis for a disciplinary dismissal.

The question whether accommodation would be required and what form that accommodation might take can really only be answered in a specific factual context. However, the fact that the employee has admitted his alcoholism and has apologized and that he has expressed an intention to seek treatment certainly decreases the likelihood of a termination being upheld.

Tim Mitchell is a partner with Laird Armstrong in Calgary who practices employment and labour law. He can be reached at t.mitchell@lairdarmstrong.com or (403) 233-0050.

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