ou can’t plan for everything.
And even when the plan is in place, having the mechanisms to work through every problem in your business takes time and people, both of which cost money.

Substance abuse is on the rise and (at least in my view) amongst the least understood & underestimated risks to most businesses today, especially start-ups.

Recent statistics on drug abuse estimate that approximately 13.3% of the adult South African population struggle with addiction (Crossroads recovery, 2018). Drugs and alcohol affect every part of a person’s life including work, family and friendships. Relationships suffer. Families are destroyed and careers trajectories stunted due to the high rates of substance abuse in our modern societies.

So you start your business.
Are prudent enough to think through having HR policies and procedures in place to address issues such as performance, workplace culture, and even substance abuse.
But, how do you know when an incident of substance abuse actually occurs?
And when it does, what do you actually do?

I had a manager in my VC firm that was suffering from an alcohol abuse problem. Concerned with my global tours, raising additional runway, ensuring that our operational teams deliver to clients & the formation of our board, I completely missed the early warning signals and didn’t detect the signs until his behaviour became so destructive, schizophrenic and erratic that I had to ask deeper questions.

Off the bat, he took a while to warm up before he added value to the firm, but once he got warmed up, he was a decent employee. In at the office early. Worked later than the average staffer. Added real value in team & client discussions. Often had an educated view that one could interrogate. Would frequently get decision mapping wrong but was willing to take a view and take a decision. And I like that.

It started with a consist twitch. The jumping knee that furiously leaps every nano-second and causes everyone around that person anxiety. Then came the daily outside lunches at the bar restaurant around the proverbial corner from office, and as I have since come to learn, every meal started with glass of white wine, ended with a glass of white wine and then a carton of white wine was taken back to the office in a sports drink container to consume whilst at the office. Everyday.

This individual also worked on a project 500kms away from the office and was often seconded to see to the project management and operational delivery of the project. My office started receiving reports of uncontrollable drunken behaviour which also led to (as it is alleged) sexual harassment of the local contractors on site. Dreadful stuff.

The pity is that all these signs take time to sift through the various layers of teams of control and then eventually into the in-tray of the CEO.

… and fortunately, the belligerence did amplify.

The person (who for their own dignity must remain unnamed) started instigating customers of the firm on WhatsApp groups, blatantly lying about the firm, bringing the company and the management of the team into disrepute and working actively to destroy the name and the brand of the firm. Coincidentally every one of these incidents was done well after the hour of 8 pm. when as I have since become aware, they would really get into their drunken stride.

The final step was the individual remotely accessing company IT systems to which he had managerial sign-in (around 10 pm) and deleting critical client files, project information, and records of teamwork. Fortunately for the firm, all our work, workflows, documents and correspondence are backed-up by our service providers in Silicon Valley. So if the first layer of security is breached, we have layered to the fourth level of back-ups, security and data protection.

As a consequence, the firm took a decision to have charges laid against this person and an arrest subsequently followed. The police contacted this person and instructed them to present themselves to the police station and they refused. When one of my managers arrived at his residence, accompanying the police so as to provide positive identification, the police confirm that he resisted arrest, was drunk beyond reasoning & was in the company of a woman who was not his wife, in his family home. I mention this only to make the point that what makes cases of substance abuse difficult is they often do alter the personality and character of the person and make it difficult for an amicable solution to be reached.

For the record, the potential loss to the firm as a result of their actions could have been well in access of R13mln.

Now, remember the HR policies and procedures are in place. The HR function is well skilled and capacitated to handle these issues. But the law is very clear on the presumption of innocence and the protection of the dignity of all persons, including employees in these instances. Moreover, alcohol abuse did not manifest as alcohol abuse but rather sexual harassment, insubordination, espionage amongst others. So, at the effect, you deal with the result of the behavior of the addicted person before you can address the actual addiction.

Our firm is not the first to experience this. People daily suffer from untold illnesses. Anorexia, alcoholism, drug abuse, and many many others.

What should you do?

  1. Make sure that you have a corporate wellness program in place from an external service provider. This will not eliminate but may alleviate some of the pressure of your team and create an environment where substance abuse is more easily uncovered. We have since started the process of implementing an organisation-wide employee wellness program;
  2. Watch the patterns & behaviours of your people. When behaviours become erratic and unexplained then take the initiative to uncover what the problem is;
  3. Protect your business. Remove to ever possible the use of manual systems such as Excel and have your team using collaborative tools that can store and back-up data. I will publish a different article on the system I use in my businesses;
  4. Trust your gut. When something doesn’t that look or sound right, investigate it. Usually, your gut is sensing something you don’t yet have the concrete evidence to act on.

If you are wondering what happened to this person. I instructed our HR team to have the charges withdrawn after we were able to recover our work. I am not certain if they have found new employment.

And, as I said to this persons’ wife and sister, “find help for him. Because sooner or later the illness will resurface and the self-destructive conduct will show again”.

Remember the most important of management practices: empathy.

Vusi Thembekwayo
Speaker | Investor | Dragon Slayer