I’ve spent much of the last 17 years working with current and former drug users, homeless people and ex-offenders in London and Sheffield.
Much of that time has been taken up helping them to access services, which include housing, treatment and mental health support, so that people have the necessary assistance to try and turn their lives around - for good.
But people don’t want to receive this kind of support forever. The biggest step towards re-establishing an individual’s self-worth and pride comes when they enter the world of work: changing their status from “former addict” to “employee”.
Making that move is difficult for someone who has had a drug or alcohol problem though. Research carried out by the UK Drug Policy Commission, for example, revealed that most employers have not knowingly employed people from this group.
A key issue is that, while employer opinions may be based on what they see and hear in the media, depictions are often sensationalist and inaccurate. So what would be the benefits to you, and the business, of employing people that you might otherwise overlook?
What are the benefits?
1. You gain employees who are motivated by more than a pay cheque
The perception of people with a history of drug and alcohol dependency is that they could be high-risk – troublesome, unreliable and high maintenance. But we recently surveyed more than 50 London organisations about their experiences of employing former drug users.
More than half agreed that they appreciated the opportunity to work and only three said that they’d found them unreliable. Employer research conducted by the UKDPC also found that experiences were in the main “very positive, with low levels of absenteeism and staff turnover, and high levels of productivity”.
Recovering from drug or alcohol dependency and making the decision to change your life requires commitment and determination. There is evidence that this makes people bond more strongly with their employer and become both more loyal and more motivated as they’re thankful for the chance that they’ve been given.
2. It is a strong CSR win
Corporate social responsibility helps companies do well by doing good.
Customers prefer to deal with businesses that have responsible policies and practices, and procurement policies often favour those organisations that can demonstrate a willingness to make a positive social impact, along with providing a top quality service and keen pricing, of course.
You might be surprised to learn, however, that as many as one in five adults responding to a DrugScope/ICM survey said that they had direct personal experience of drug dependency, either personally or among family and friends. So choosing to engage with this disadvantaged group could really help you to stand out from the crowd.
3. It provides an opportunity to develop the skills of your existing workforce
Some organisations have used targeted recruitment as a development opportunity for their existing staff. Providing training that can help employees understand the range of issues that their customers and the wider public face can lead to a better service and higher performance.
At an individual level, meanwhile, some firms have asked existing staff members to coach or mentor new recruits as a way of developing their management and leadership skills prior to taking a formal step up.
But while some of the common stereotypes can be challenged, it would also not be fair to say that there are never any risks attached to employing people with a history of drug or alcohol use.
How to prepare your organisation
Things can sometimes go wrong, as they can with any other group of workers. So how can you best prepare your organisation to support both new and existing staff and mitigate any risks?
1. Preventing a relapse
It can be a long and difficult journey towards freedom from dependency and, unfortunately, people sometimes find themselves struggling with substance use, even after a period of being drug- or alcohol-free.
As a result, regular one-to-one meetings with a line manager and opportunities to discuss any current stresses or problems will help to ensure that issues are picked up early. Time off to attend treatment appointments, as with other health conditions, should also be offered as a matter of course.
2. If someone relapses, get help from local treatment professionals
Build links with a local drug and alcohol treatment provider and ask for their advice and support if one of your employees is struggling. They can also help you to develop a good organisational policy if you haven’t already got one (see below).
Ensure that the organisation keeps the lines of communication open with the worker concerned and, if necessary, consider adapting their hours or allowing time off if someone needs more support to get through a particularly difficult time.
As in other areas, while you need to ensure that acceptable standards of conduct are maintained, being supportive of good staff who develop health or personal problems means that you are less likely to lose their skills or the investment that you’ve made in them.
3. Develop a drug and alcohol policy
The Health and Safety Executive recommends that organisations of all sizes would benefit from an agreed drug and alcohol policy. The policy should apply to all staff, setting out how the company expects them to behave and what action will result if drug or alcohol problems arise.
Your policy should also indicate that the organisation will take steps to help employees access treatment, while at the same time clarifying the disciplinary steps that could follow if they do not engage with the support on offer.
4. Replicate the good practice being developed to deal with other health problems
People with a history of drug and alcohol use are not protected by the same legal framework that applies to people with physical disabilities or mental health problems, notably the Equalities Act 2010.
However, many of the employment practices developed for people who experience fluctuating conditions such as some mental health issues are relevant and helpful for those in recovery.
How to find suitable candidates
So how can you go about finding suitable candidates who are in recovery?
1. Build partnerships with your local community's service providers
A lot of drug and alcohol treatment services, which are often run by voluntary sector organisations, provide Employment, Training and Education services that enable people to focus on developing skills such as communication, assertiveness, active listening and teamwork.
So partner up with a local ETE programme and see if their service users meet your requirements.
2. Be clear about what you are looking for
If ETE service providers understand what you need, they will be in a better position to deliver it. You will also benefit from a low-risk, low-cost recruitment approach that provides motivated staff who are ready to hit the ground running.
But you will likewise gain from being involved with a skilled partner that can add value by offering services such as in-work support and welfare benefits advice as well as help with any housing problems.
3. Get involved with local charities
Working with third sector organisations can be positive for both parties. CHC, a charity in North West London that works with socially excluded men and women, for example, has established working relationships with a range of local employers, ranging from small, local firms to large, national retailers, builders and hospitality companies.
These employers take an active interest in the charity’s activities and support it by offering up staff and management time. This, in turn, helps those offering their skills and efforts to grow and develop as individuals, creating a virtuous circle. The promotional benefits are also significant due to frequent positive media coverage.