Hi, not sure where I should put this thread, so I am leaving it here...

I would like some advice on how to handle an incident that occurred this morning where an employee of my firm whom I was escorting onto a client site appeared to have alcohol on his breath.

I couldn't be certain so didn't say anything, but how can one better handle a situation like this?

The employee in question is not a direct and works on a contract basis with my firm. I'm sure I should have done something, but there were other peers and some sales reps at the location and I wasn't sure of an appropriate feedback response.

I would appreciate any feedback I can use to talk to the employee asap, and well as on how to more effectively handle any similar incidents in the future.



jhack's picture

OK, I understand your concern.  The right response is careful attention to behavior.   

So, was there anything problematic with his behavior:  slurred speech, talking too loud, poor analysis, that sort of thing? 

Could it have been aftershave?  

One must be very careful jumping to conclusions, and especially where there is no behaviorial impact (ie, if his work is really solid, then you have to have much stronger proof of his transgression.)   If his work product was poor, or his behvavior in front of the client was a problem, then you have grounds for discussion beyond his breath.  

Do you have reasons to suspect the client knew, or was concerned?   

John Hack

krisntokyo's picture

Thanks John,

Actually yes, there were a number of possible indicators ~ he wanted to confirm training content, AND got his assignment wrong (then asked me why he couldn't do the same as last time...) He seemed to forgot to press his floor button in the elevator (though he did remember his training room number), and he appeared a bit disengaged (looking down, folding his arms) while I was giving the training orientation to his clients.

Granted this guy has never been the sharpest knife in the drawer, compared to other trainers we use, and I wasn't with in the training room long enough to notice if the client notice anything; thinking about his behavior, in addition to his breath there might be reasonable grounds to suspect that he was under the influence of alcohol.

If so, I should give him feedback along the lines of 'when you ask me what the program you are going to deliver is, THEN don't press the elevator button to the floor your need, AND look down at the table when I am giving a client orientation, AND have breath that smells like alcohol; here's what happens... (seems like 'piling it on' in Step 2)

Is feedback appropriate for a non-direct? (I am in a sales role with this client)

I would like to handle this without talking to HR, as I am probably required to do.

What might you recommend?


- Kris


jhbchina's picture


Is it possible that it was mouth wash that you could not recognize. Is there anything else going on in their life that could distract them? It is possible that a personal crisis could have this person thinking about other things.

Like Covey says "First seek to understand...."

Imagine how you would feel if you said something and their response was ...Someone close to them passed away, or was really ill. Or they couldn't make the morgage payment.

I would approach it like this.... Did you sleep alright last night? See what he says. As M&M says, you don't always have to give feedback.

Keep us posted.

krisntokyo's picture

Thanks to John and JHB for your advice.

I called the individual and asked if he was okay this morning. Understandably he wanted to know 'why, and was there anything wrong.'  I said 'no' and that I was concerned as I felt he was a 'little off his game.'  He asked why I thought that and I mentioned the three points in my previous post ~ unclear about his training plan, unfocused in the elevator, and a little disengaged (not behavior, I know) in the orientation. 

He immediately said 'no, he felt great this morning and the training session went really well.' He asked if everything was really okay, as he was surprised by my call; I apologized for making him worry and for misreading his behavior and said 'I was only concerned that everything was okay with him'. He said he was appreciative of my concern and we left it at that.

Though I am pretty sure I did smell alcohol today, I am glad to have given him the benefit of the doubt and to 'seek to understand' rather than tackle the more serious issue this time. In either case, he is now aware that his behavior was observed, so this might be considered a proxy 'shot across the bow'




jael's picture

Is he a diabetic?  Some diabetics have a fruity odor to their breath when their sugar levels are off, and it can be mistaken for alcohol.

jhack's picture


One of three possible things were going on:  

 - He wasn't drinking, was actually OK, cheap aftershave, a little off his game.  No harm done, he knows you're paying attention to his performance. 

 - He wasn't drinking, something was wrong, cheap aftershave (or diabetic, or...):  No harm done, he knows you care about his performance.  He didn't want to talk about it. 

 - He was drinking.  You've fired a shot across the bow, and he knows you're onto him, and you just have to hope he does the right thing. 

John Hack

jardena's picture
Training Badge


I think you handled this beautifully,  I agree with John's comments.  Good job. 

I just wanted to add that whether or not the smell was actual alcohol is irrelevant. If you thought you smelled it, the client could have thought the same thing.  In which case, I think calling it out it fine.  Consider something like "...I thought I smelled alcohol, I may be mistaken but the client could have thought the same thing."    There's probably a better way to phrase that, but I hope you get the idea.


RichRuh's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

If the client thinks they smelled alcohol, you're not going to get a shot across the bow.  You're going to get fired.

The important behavior here is "breath smelled like alcohol."  That's pretty important-- and worth specifically addressing.

Maybe it is cheap aftershave, in which case the trainer should stop wearing it.  Kris's conversation leaves this point completely unaddressed.


nicholbb's picture

As commented above I think you handled an awkward situation well.  You've done the hard part by raising the issue, so you won't feel reluctant to tackle him if it happens again.  The only advice I would add is to make sure you write up your conversation with the employee, if things do get nasty (i.e he's fired and he sues) you have some evidence that you've been tackling the situation.

FYI, another possible cause of Alcohol smell is the Atkins diet.  This was why, a few years ago, there was a spate of pilots being escorted off flights under the suspicion of being drunk.

krisntokyo's picture

I have to agree with Rich that my conversation didn't address the core issue that I thought I could smell alcohol, and if I could maybe the client could as well.

Though I understand it is not good to jump to conclusions, that there may have been mitigating circumstances, and that I might have been mistaken, the fact remains that we are a service industry and most clients rank alcohol abuse right up there with sexual harassment in zero tolerance. Hope (that it won't happen again) is not an effective method here.

Given that it appears easy to misread alcohol related signs and that some individuals can tolerate different amounts before they show clear behavioral signals, what might be the best way to handle suspected abuse (for want of a better word)?

There might be a cast here Mike and Mark?

sent from my iphone

jhbchina's picture

Great Thread MT'ers

We are all learning a great lesson. Whatever the smell was " really bad breath... body odor" it sounds like Kris is still not comfortable with how he has addressed it.

Outside of getting this DR to do a breath analysis, you would not be able to prove they were drinking if things did get ugly. And jumping to the conclusion that they were drinking before work is a big one, unless it is very obvious, or it is a repeated offense.

Jardena and Rich's comment "I thought I smelled alcohol, I may be mistaken but the client could have thought the same thing." adds a new paradigm to the content.

So would it be ethical for Kris to say "The other day some one detected an odor that smelled something like alcohol, and brought it to my attention." This gives Kris a reason to directly address his concern. Since we are commenting about "What ifs" it is possible  that  the client did smell something and did make a comment to a higher up, and would give the DR another chance to come clean to Kris.

As I remember the "body odor" cast, the purpose is to understand the source of the odor "and to help the employee overcome it to protect their professional image. Time to re listen to that cast!

Good luck Kris



scm2423's picture
Licensee Badge

Being an industrial facility we have a strict policy about alcohol/drug use prior to reporting to or during work  As a manager as soon as we think there is an issue, i.e. smell on breath, slurred speach we isloate the employee in an office and call in another manager for a second opinion or escort the employee to first aid for their opinion.  If after the second opinion we still believe there is a problem we send the employee home.  A taxi is called for the employee and we pay for it if the employee won't.  The employee is told that they are not to return to pick up there car for at least 12 hours and security is informed to watch for them.  For us it is an issue about workplace safety and risk management.  We are also responsible for the employee getting home safely not causing any accidents. 

krisntokyo's picture

Thanks everyone for your helpful comments, and particularly to JHB for his recommendation to go back and listen to the 'Personal Scent' cast, which I have just finished.

Mark said it's 'all about impact.' In this instance, the impact is my company's business relationship with a client if one of our trainers is on-site and might be suspected of having alcohol on his breath. Serious consequences.

I can see there are many possibilities for mistaking alcohol for other scents (John, JAEL, NICHOLBB) and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions; but, given the impact, I don't think my conversation with the individual addressed this impact at all (Jardina and Rich).

What to do now? I have already spoken to the individual trying to understand about his situation. In retrospect I should have addressed the issue then. Can I go back and revisit?

The personal scent cast was useful, but this is more serious in terms of bottom line impact. How might one better address a similar first hand observation, or a second hand report in the future.

Thanks again


jhbchina's picture


Nice work on following up. I have one question. Has the client made a comment about the "Odor"?  Was the DR training survey results in line with previous training. As a corporate trainer, we always had a record on training results, if he was drinking or ineffective, it could show up in the post class survey. 

If not, then for this event there was no impact. You inquired if the DR is having a personal crisis, while quietly firing a shot across the bow. Now the DR is aware you are watching and  you have your bases covered without blowing things out of hand. Nice job.

Next step, in a meeting with all team and department members, add to the agenda a review of company policies on drugs and drinking for good measure. If he was out of line, now he knows you are talking about him without talking directly about him. ;-)

In your first post, you said it was in the morning, I'm curious, what time in the morning?

Thanks for sharing so that we all learned more.


PS - drinking at lunch in China is very common, and in some European countries too.

krisntokyo's picture

Nice JHB, thanks;

I have asked our sales exec to contact the client group-leader to find out how training is going. All trainers will be onsite twice a week for 3 months, so typically a survey won't be conducted until the end of the program.

Once I get feedback from the group leader I can decide how to proceed. If it is positive or neutral +, I can assume no impact. If it is less than that I can replace the trainer.

In either case, your next step regarding a group review of the client alcohol policy for all trainers is a great idea. They are all contract employees, not DRs, but I can leave a blanket voicemail that everyone (about 20) will receive. 

Training is held 8:00 to 10:00 at the client site, per their request. I initially thought the individual had been drinking late the previous evening or had a 'hair of the dog' before coming to work the morning in question.

Our client is a Fortune 50 company that has strict policies in place that we are required to adhere to as a part of our contract obligations. 

Thanks again


finnigan's picture

 Having just dismissed someone with a drinking problem, our only regret was that we didn't document and didn't confront sooner, maybe there would have been some different and perhaps better outcomes.  This caused some issues down the line, as some staff thought we were looking the other way; well we probably were (it did not seem that important at the time).  Live and learn.  One of the twisted issues is that it is okay to say drinking is not permitted on the job, and its okay to focus on the performance.  However, in Canada, if you try to send the employee to counselling, etc, it is an admission by the employer that the employee has a drinking problem, which becomes an illness, which becomes an area where accommodation is required under human rights legislation (you can't discriminate on the basis of illness).  So keep the conversation focussed on the behaviour.  Sending someone to a clinic is making it your problem.

piratedave's picture

 While I understand that you weren't sure if it was actually alcohol, but I would like to interject that, in my opinion, coming to work with alcohol on the breath and other evidence of drinking requires cliffside feedback - as in the recent podcast on when NOT to give feedback.  Thus, it doesn't matter if the person is a direct and you need not conduct an investigation.  Stop the behavior, send the person home, flex to backfill the job for the day, and explain the short and long term consequences.

It is not OK to show up to work drunk (or even tipsy or buzzed or whatever).  In my organization, this will get you sent home immediately and put you in danger of losing your job.  It's not a statement on the person's health or an accusation of alcoholism.  Showing up one time drunk in the morning is not necessarily a sign of alcoholism, but it is a behavior that must be stopped immediately.  If you have an onsite clinic that can make an actual, medical determination that the person has been drinking, then this appropriately documents the behavior - it does not establish an ongoing health issue.

On that note, you cannot make the determination that a person needs counseling or is an alcoholic.  Alcoholism is a health issue and can only be diagnosed by a doctor.  You should focus on the behavior and stop it.

mrcanada976's picture

I've been having problems with this lately, from the employee side of the coin, so I thought I would share my perspective.

Bare in mind that these problems have not been happening in anything client-facing.  I am building a business and working through a temp agency doing construction and warehousing.  As I don't have a trade is mostly general and skilled labor.  The pay rate is quite low.  My main career is in investment banking, this stuff I'm doing is not even close to a career for me.  I have turned down unsolicited offers from banks.

I have had complaints to the agency, and been sent home early, that I "smell like alcohol" or that I have been "drinking on the job".  This isn't even close to the case.  I bring water to work in hot weather, tea in cold weather (Earl Grey with sugar, to be exact).  

The problem (which may be similar to the OPs post) is that if I have had a lot of drinks the night before, I will smell like alchohol at work the next day.  In some cases I haven't had a drink in over 12 hours.  Maybe it's just the way my body processes alcohol, maybe its the physical labor pushing it out of my pores.  Under no circumstances have I arrived to work hung over, or still drunk from a late night of drinking the night before, I always get my rest and usually wake up without my alarm clock well before I need to even start getting ready (downside of working in capital markets on the west coast; after a while you just can't sleep past 5 am).

Heck, I don't even get drunk.  I have always had an astronomical alcohol tolerance like those in my family.  Even if I was drinking on the job, other than the smell it's highly doubtful that anyone would notice anything different about me; not that I ever do that because that would just be stupid - even for a low paying job that I dont even care about.

So my advice to those in a similar situation to the OP is this, what I would like for these silly supervisors to do (other than complaining to the agency and sending me home early): 

1) Ask me straight up - are you drinking on the job?  You smell like alchohol.  If you are going to be a manager/supervisor it's time to grow a pair and just ask the question, in private.  Chances are that your employee will give you a reasonable answer - or they will give you an excuse.

2) If you don't buy and you think you're getting an excuse, because they have a coffee cup, water bottle, or something else they have been drinking out of, ask if you can smell it, just to be sure.  I certainly would have no problem handing over my tea mug if it was going to exonerate me from an accusation that I was engaging in unsafe/prohibited behavior.  If they refuse to hand it over, then you certainly know you have a problem, then escalate.

3) If you are still concerned, do what my supervisor did today, ask: "Did you drink last night?".  Chances are high that the answer is yes if you legitimately smell what you know is alcohol, as most people aren't stupid enough to drink on the job.  (IMO, the OP was probably dealing with a guy a bit hung over who hit the sauce the night before, hence the elevator button and head down)

4) Finally, determine if there are behaviors that are unacceptable.  Unassumingly shadow the employee a bit, or do spot checks.  If you see staggering, slurred words, lack of balance, or inappropriate conversation or comments then you likely have a problem on your hands that needs further action.  If the person is acting normally other than smelling of alcohol, then maybe just leave them alone to do their job, provided they are productive (ie. not hung over to the extreme and can't fulfill their job duties)

Another comment I will make is about other employees "bringing this matter to your attention".  Everyone has a motive for "bringing a matter to the supervisor's attention".  It could be legitimate (ie. the employee's behavior is inappropriate or it appears unsafe, or that it may give a bad impression on clients), but remember it can also be illegitimate - (ie. they would like some overtime, are looking for a raise, have a personal conflict issue, maybe they're just a grouch who likes to complain).  It may be difficult to determine their motive, but what you can do is initially question the employee who is bringing up this matter - because once you receive a complaint like that you must deal with it and investigate it for yourself.  Question them as follows:

a) What encouraged you to bring this to your attention?

b) Did you witness any unsafe behaviors?  If so who else do you think witnessed them as well?

c) Has the employee in question insulted anyone or have they been acting rude or confrontational?

d) What negative impact do you see for our business as a result of what you have brought to my attention?

If someone is drunk and drinking at work, the fact of the matter is it's probably going to be dead-to-rights obvious to everyone, especially yourself as you are the manager or supervisor in charge of the place.  If it's "iffy" and you can't be sure then the most likely explanation is probably that they smell of alcohol from the night before and there's nothing they can do about it.  If this revelation comes from a co-worker of the employee in question, chances are more likely that they are either a recovering alcoholic attempting abstinence and the smell bothers them (solution: ensure distance), that they are brown nosing (solution: make a mental note of it and deal with it as you see fit if the problem becomes a repeat pattern), or that they intrinsically feel like they are there to enforce the rules (solution: you are the boss, you enforce the rules).

I say this from experience as a temporary worker.  In the past six months I have worked on a wide variety of job sites, and there is always that one guy or woman who smells a bit of alcohol on you or someone else and never shuts up about it - despite that person acting perfectly normally.  Really, they should not be worrying about how people smell (unless they are in front of clients) and they should be doing their jobs rather than killing time, wandering around finding you and babbling about how someone else smells to get out of doing some work.  There is usually an alterior motive - and that alterior motive may even be that they are showing up on the job doing drugs or drinking themselves trying to distract from themselves.

Hope that you find this post useful.

LOLOL's picture

LIke the last poster said, I'd just pull them aside and ask them straight up - dude, your breathe smells like alcohol, have you been drinking today or in the past 12 hours? 

Same points as last poster, it'll be easy to keep tabs on their behaviours and give them feedback from that point forward that drinking the night before has an effect on their performance the next day if they're tired and hungover or smelling like alcohol (refer to the other points about body odors at that point).

You could approach it from the other side too - how was your night?  See if they talk about the party or the drinking they did or whatnot.  If no mention of it, ask then if they've been drinking because they smell of it.

Anytime a cop pulls someone over and they smell alcohol I wonder how correct they are - like, how often do they actually find an impaired driver vs. cheap aftershave or whatnot?  I doubt very often, so if someone smells of alcohol at work, it's most likely alcohol IMO.

mrcanada976's picture

IMO, this topic is where "free time off the clock" is blurring into "paid time on the clock".  

Employers need to understand that employees have lives outside of work.  You do not own an employee 24/7 just because you hire them for 8 hours a day.  That leaves 8 hours for them to their own perrogative, whereby you do not control them.  If they are "on call", that is a different matter, but time spent "on call" is payable.  Are you paying your employee between shifts?  Chances are you are not, and if you are there are clear guidelines for availability and conduct when "on call".

If I am working construction, and that is often very labour intensive work, I am going to come home with sore muscles.  (Try lifting 6800 lbs an hour - then tell me you're not sore when you get home).  The easiest cure for sore, tense muscles is alcohol, and a lot of it.  It relaxes everything, helps you sleep.  Some people's alcohol tolerance is different than others.  An office worker may unwind the mind with a glass or two of wine.  A construction worker may need a whole bottle of spirits, which can seep through their pores under heavy working conditions.

As a manager, it is not your job, nor your role to choose how people medicate themselves.  Telling an employee to ditch the bottle after work and take muscle relaxants instead is simply you playing doctor, something for which you are likely highly unqualified to do.  The muscle relaxants may not have a smell, but they do have side effects, some of which can be deadly (cue the endless warnings at the end of drug ads on TV). 

Try googling "health benefits of vodka".  Vodka is basically ethanol and water.  You may be surprised at how many positive benefits the stuff has; everything from promoting hair growth to preventing illness and tooth decay.  This is not to say it is not a drug with addictive qualities, but if you send an employee to the doctor to get pain medication in leui of alcohol, you may just lead them into an opiod addiction which is far worse.

This is why the focus should be on performance, and the effects it may have on the business.

1) Are they hung over, having a hard time focusing, keeping their eyes open, or crossing the line towards lack of adherence to safety standards?

2) How are they communicating?  Slurred speech, wobbly legs, and acting basically drunk could have a variety of negative outcomes.  This includes alcohol induced aggression.

3) If they are client facing, perhaps the smell is something that you don't feel suits your desired company image.  Some low-impact ways to deal with this problem is to raise the issue, give them a later start time, or ask them to wear cologne or aftershave, maybe provide a bunch of minty chewing gum on days where client meetings will be occurring.  A few bucks on a bag of wintergreen gum is far less costly than hiring another employee.

4) Remember above all else, if you aren't paying them, then you aren't controlling them.  Time off the clock is their time, and they can do whatever they want provided it is legal, and if it isn't legal that is a police matter, not yours.

I have found that some people smell the slightest whiff of alcohol like an airport sniffer dog, yet many others don't even notice.  I was on a 16.5 hour shift (which I didn't sign up for BTW), hadn't eaten since I woke up as I was to attend a breakfast meeting and back to back breakfasts would make the meeting awkward.  By 8:30pm, I was exhausted (hard labour) and ate some Subway and bought a beer to wash down lunch.  I had been working 13 hours by this point.  The boss instantly smelled alcohol.  This is only an example, but some people's noses pick up on alcohol more than others.  Half a beer is not even close to getting someone drunk or intoxicated after 13 hours of work and 7 hours of sleep.  The point: just because someone smells it doesn't indicate a problem.  My fiancee doesn't smoke, and she had some sniffer dog co-worker catch a whiff of her clothes and thought she had been smoking; in reality she just had her jacket in my house.  Moral of the story, smells are part of life.  If I smelled like curry because I was east Indian, would this be a fireable offense?  How about if I ate a ton of garlic chicken the night before?  Would that be a fireable offense?

Especially if the job is not client facing, then unless poor or unsafe behavior is involved, this is not a management issue.  If it is client facing, it may be cleared up by merely saying you have a scent free workplace and if you're going to hit the sauce the night before, make sure to go to bed early and take a shower.  In hard labour positions (which are usually not client facing) this may be beyond the workers' control because they are going to sweat.

Finally, if this is brought up to a manager without any negatives to back it up (poor behavior, slurred speech, unsafe practices) the line of questioning should be directed toward the employee who is bringing it to attention, not to the employee accused.  Something to ask, is why would this employee go crying to management about a smell they don't like?  While there are a variety of possibilites too long to list, a managers' intuition should be sharp enough to determine what the motivation is.