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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 have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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