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Is termination justified for someone afflicted by depression and alcohol abuse?

The Question

A friend was recently let go due to performance and job abandonment. The reason for the job abandonment ties into substance abuse (alcohol) and mental health (depression). His place of employment had provided multiple opportunities for detox and time off over the past six months. They had already written a warning letter and demoted him. Still, due to his addiction issues and attempts to rectify the problems, is termination justified? He was instructed by the employer to attend a treatment program and he had registered, but was waiting on a ministry bed in July. The company offered no funds to support a private program.


The First Answer

Bill Howatt

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Chief research and development officer, work force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto

Most organizations have a substance-abuse policy that spells out the employer’s position and the expectations for both employee and employer with respect to how the employer will manage an employee with an addiction issue in the workplace. Employees who have addictions or mental-health issues that are diagnosable by a qualified professional are protected under human-rights legislation.

In Canada, for employees who disclose an addiction, the employer has the legal responsibility to accommodate the disability of addiction and mental health, unless it brings on undue hardship. The employer is not required to pay for private treatment. If the employee exhausts all the company’s available paid-leave options, it’s common for the employer to provide unpaid sick time so they can get the treatment they need.

In some cases, employees with addiction issues can get into discipline problems because they don’t comply with policies. The discipline is due to a breach and has nothing to do with the addiction issue. It’s important for employees experiencing addiction issues in the workplace to understand and follow policy, because if they breach it the common test is to determine whether they were capable of following it and chose to breach it.

The Second Answer

Bruce Sandy

Principal, Pathfinder Coaching and Consulting, Vancouver

Your friend needs to speak to an employment lawyer if he feels that his termination was not justified. An employer under either federal or provincial laws and labour guidelines has a duty to provide reasonable accommodation to a person with a disability, including mental-health conditions and addictions. This accommodation cannot cause undue hardship for the employer, though.

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From your description of your friend’s situation, it sounds like his employer had tried to accommodate him by listening to him, acknowledging his mental-health and addiction issues, and offering time off to address his addiction issues. It sounds like at the same time that they were following a progressive discipline process regarding his performance, which involved verbal discussions about his performance, a letter of warning, a demotion and finally his termination. The question that an employment lawyer can help your friend with is, did his employer do enough and give him enough time to address his addiction and mental-health issues using the tests of reasonable accommodation and undue hardship.

The employment lawyer may be able to help your friend negotiate a severance but it is unlikely that he will be able to have your friend reinstated since the employer saw his performance as subpar.

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