Thursday, July 30, 2015

Using Firm Choice and Last Chance Agreements Revisited

Firm choice agreements are often used with substance-abusing employees. They employ the leverage of disciplinary action held in abeyance only if there is an immediate decision by the employee to accept a exclusive source of help for a personal problem (usually substance abuse that has been documented or is overtly existent in the form of "documentable" performance issues.)

Firm choice agreements are a last chance, true, but they are not "last chance agreements." Last chance agreements do not employ immediate leverage of disciplinary action, but a postponement of it...certain and assured disciplinary action...until the very next infraction occurs. This is a recipe for disaster with addicts.

Why? Because addicts always, always, always believe that if the urgency to do so is great enough, that they can control their use alcohol to avoid problems with it. All they need is threat as a motivator. Unfortunately, the rules of the disease trump this insanity.

Firm choice agreements are the way to go with substance-abusing employees. They can work well damn well, but there are a variety of reasons they can easily fail, the most important of which is lack of EAP involvement and close monitoring by pros to help the newly recovering addict avoid relapse by staying involved in ongoing treatment and a recovery program.

Another reason firm choice agreements often fail is lack of immediacy. The employee is offered the option of being referred for help along with one last chance in terms of job performance. If he or she declines help, nothing happens except to wait for the next infraction.

Any employee with a substance abuse problem will try again to control his or her substance use without treatment, and relapse under these circumstances is virtually assured. Dismissal and loss of human capital is the outcome. This is a big "ouch" for all concerned. EAPs must understand how to consult on firm choice agreements so HR sets them up properly. It is a fantastic demonstration of EAP cost benefit that continually is ignored in the EAP literature.

The formula: Firm choice agreements require (1) immediate agreement to (2) attend an assessment, (3) accept referral, (4) enter treatment, and (5) follow through with recommendations (6) monitored by a professional with whom (7) a release is signed and kept active.

All of this is voluntary and completely up to the employee, but the leverage is so powerful that, in my experience, almost all troubled employees (with the exception of those who are past retirement age--they have a paycheck waiting if they quit) agree to it.

The bottom line is that no agreement means immediate dismissal for cause and documented performance issues (not for addiction, alcoholism, or failure to accept help).

Here's the crux: Only the employee's acceptance of the accommodation--and it is a magnificent accommodation--being offered can save the job at this moment in time. It is either a) the assessment and follow-through or b) "bye--pick up your check from on the way out."

This approach saves lives and effectively intervenes in the dynamic of addictive behavior, denial, procrastination, and manipulation common to employees with substance abuse problems. If dismissal results, it is always based on performance problems, attendance issues, or conduct, not on failure enter an assessment. This is a key point. And the organization must be at "wit's end" with the employee. If the employer is not willing to lose the worker, this approach will FAIL. It is a "he who cares least wins" model of intervention.

The opportunity to accept an assessment in lieu of termination is an accommodation for addictive illness, but it is up to the employee, not the company, to say that it is needed. No employee, unless a financial incentive awaits somewhere else--real or imagined--will decline the offer. And no employee's level of denial is so engrained that they will not be moved to accept the offer.

The employer officially doesn't care--either choice is fine. He who cares least wins in this intervention model, because it is the attitude of "detachment" that is the key dynamic driving successful intervention. There is no "next time" factor in firm choice agreements. Next time is already here.

It has been my observation that companies usually have more interest in constructing firm choice agreements with highly valued or long-term employees, but EAP involvement is essential to their success nevertheless.

This classic intervention technique was first fleshed out as a process by the U.S. federal government using guidance issued via its FPM Letters back in the 1970s, shortly after the occupational alcoholism movement began. (NIAAA was formed in 1972 at about the same time this movement took off.)

Unfortunately, the science of how to arrange firm choice agreements has gotten lost and it has become murky as the real pros of yesteryear have faded away. Part of the problem is the loss of EAP professionals inside large business with experience in consulting on these arrangements. The other is the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After passage of the ADA, alcoholics lost coverage and protection afforded to them by Section 504 of the national Rehabilitation Act governing handicapped persons. Surprised? It's true. They are worse off because of the ADA. Not better off. The ADA dealt with discrimination and stigma, not job security for affected addicts out of control with their disease. This made mandatory interventions (once required by OPM) obsolete, and indeed discriminatory to use with one group of people but not another. It is my argument that the ADA may killed more alcoholics than it saved, but got more employed.

Here is the long and short of this post: You'll save a ton of bucks on turnover, training, workers' comp, and EPL risk if you use firm choice agreements properly.

Remember, firm choice agreements that omit professional monitoring will fail almost every time they're tried. They always end up with the famous phrase, "Oh my, such a shame... he was doing so well, but we had to fire him...he relapsed!"

Of course he (she) did!