Boulukos: Guiding clients through an executive intervention

March 12, 2014
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

By Manolis Boulukos

In the opening sequence of “Mad Men” – the popular AMC drama about hard-drinking Madison Avenue execs in 1960s New York – we watch as an animated silhouette of Don Draper, the series’ alcoholic anti-hero, plummets from a skyscraper through a kaleidoscope of iconic advertising images. He falls and falls, but we never see him hit the ground. And then, quite suddenly, he is back in his armchair, cigarette in hand. Viewers are left to wonder: When will the hard landing come?

boulukos-manolis.jpg Boulukos

When an executive’s substance abuse triggers a personal and professional free fall, colleagues may be slow to recognize that the bottom is coming – and fast. At some point, and hopefully before permanent damage has been done, the fact that the leader has become a liability is impossible to ignore. But, as critical as it is to acknowledge that a problem exists, that is, to borrow from the vernacular of addiction recovery, only the first step. Deciding to take action is one thing; deciding what action to take is quite another.

One measure some organizations are choosing is the “executive intervention” in which the executive is confronted by colleagues (and sometimes loved ones) and given the choice between treatment or facing serious, employment-related consequences. Traditionally used within the family context, there is evidence that an intervention may be even more effective when tied to the substance abuser’s employment.

Although staging an executive intervention may seem extreme, one need not look far to see how quickly a leader’s misadventures with drugs or alcohol can become a social media fiasco, causing lasting damage to the reputations of both the executive and the organization. Consequently, for an organization concerned about its leader’s substance abuse, the executive intervention may present an appealing option to address the problem before it becomes a full-blown crisis.

Lawyers with clients considering this unconventional approach will certainly want to encourage the client to consult with a substance-abuse expert as to whether an intervention is advisable from a clinical perspective. From a legal perspective, clients will also need to understand the unique legal risks involved in conducting an intervention in the workplace setting.

At the outset, it is clear that taking no action, or ineffective action, to address an executive’s substance abuse entails its own set of legal risks. Officers and/or board members may have an affirmative legal duty to protect the organization and its shareholders from the acts or omissions of the troubled executive. Among other chilling possibilities, their inaction could expose the organization – and, conceivably, officers and board members themselves – to shareholder actions, sexual harassment lawsuits, tort claims alleging vicarious liability or negligent retention, and governmental enforcement actions based on the executive’s neglect of duties.

If the client determines that an intervention is necessary, the most obvious risk from an employment perspective concerns the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, current alcohol abuse may be a covered disability. (In contrast, current illegal drug use is not a disability under the ADA.) Thus, although the ADA allows employers to discipline employees who misuse alcohol in the workplace, an employee suffering the effects of alcohol addiction outside the workplace may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Generally speaking, the ADA requires that employers provide a qualified employee with a disability a reasonable accommodation that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job, unless such an accommodation would create an undue hardship.

More specifically, the ADA has been interpreted to require the employer to engage in an “interactive process” with a disabled employee to discuss the need for, and contours of, potential accommodations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the employer may select from among several accommodations that qualify as reasonable, assuming that each alternative is effective. Consequently, an employer whose “bottom line” at an intervention demands only one option for treatment – say a two-week stay in an inpatient facility followed by outpatient treatment and attending group meetings – may violate the ADA’s accommodation requirement by refusing to discuss other alternatives, for example the executive taking a longer period of leave or receiving outpatient treatment only.

In addition, the ADA’s provisions regarding the confidentiality of medical information may come into play. The organization may find itself in a bind when a top leader takes an extended leave and the ADA limits disclosure as to the reason for the executive’s absence. Also, if, in conducting the intervention, the organization treats the executive differently from other similarly situated, non-disabled employees on the basis of his or her actual or perceived disability, or on the basis of another protected characteristic such as race, age or gender, it may face a discrimination claim under the ADA or another anti-discrimination statute.

Beyond employment discrimination concerns, the executive’s employment contract may pose obstacles to forcing an intervention – and, in particular, to any “bottom-line” consequences that may be intended to secure the executive’s cooperation. In the case of an executive with an ownership interest, there is the question of who is empowered by the organization’s corporate governance structure to force conditions of employment on the executive.

Deciding whether to stage an executive intervention involves weighing numerous and complex potential legal risks. Ultimately, of course, the decision is the client’s to make. The role of counsel is to help the client understand and prepare for the legal consequences that may result. Here are a few key legal issues that should be considered when assisting a client in evaluating or pursuing an executive intervention:

1. Advise the client to seek the advice of a professional with expertise in treating substance abuse to determine whether an intervention is an appropriate course of action, and, if so, to guide the client in planning and conducting the intervention.

2. Once there is a preliminary intervention plan, review and identify potential risks – and consider measures to reduce or eliminate them. Make sure that your client has considered what will happen if the executive is not cooperative.

3. In particular, consider whether the ADA will apply under the circumstances, and how that may affect the client’s desired “bottom line” and its plans for dealing with the executive’s absence (if any).

4. Review relevant employment contracts and corporate governance documents to determine their impact on the intervention plan, including, among other things, the organization’s legal ability to remove the executive and the price of doing so.

5. Finally, consider the ethical implications of advising the organization on the intervention, particularly if you have worked closely with the executive in question. This is one of those instances in which asking yourself “Who’s the client?” could be critical in avoiding a professional misstep.•


Manolis Boulukos is an attorney in Ice Miller LLP’s labor and employment group. Manolis advises clients on matters including federal and state litigation, wage and hour issues, and administrative proceedings before the EEOC and NLRB. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.