You have a valued employee - a good producer - with a drinking problem. Ever since a traumatic divorce, his performance has suffered. He misses a meeting with a major client. You encourage him to seek help through the Employee Assistance Program. He voluntarily enters a detoxification program. He participates in Alcoholics Anonymous twice a week. He sees a counselor.
Yet his performance continues to erode. You suspect he may be drinking again. You call him into your office. He seems a bit spacy - might be taking a decongestant for a cold. You don't smell any alcohol, but you ask him if he had been drinking. He looks at you unflinchingly and says no. You give him yet another stern warning that unless his performance improves immediately, you will have to terminate him.
You're trying to be a good manager. You really want to help this guy, a valued employee. But how far do you go? When do you draw the line? You shake your head as he walks out of your office.
The last thing on your mind at that particular moment is being sued for negligence. But for Ed Arlin, a manager at Unigraphic Solutions (UGS), that's exactly what happened after Thomas Wellinger left his office on May 3, 2005. Some three hours later, apparently on his way to an appointment with his psychiatrist, Wellinger drove his car at 70 mph into another vehicle, killing a mother and her two children. He was intoxicated to the point of no return, with a blood alcohol level at the literally staggering level of .40.
Where did Arlin go wrong? Did he wait too long to take action? In trying to help Wellinger, did he become an enabler?
Wellinger was just sentenced to a minimum of 19 years in prison. But the case does not end there. For Arlin and other managers at UGS, there is no end in sight. Gary Weinstein, whose family was wiped out on that fateful day last May, has filed a civil suit. So far, the police have been unable to trace Wellinger's movements on the day of the crash. So Weinstein cannot sue a bar for serving too much liquor. His only recourse at this moment is to sue the employer, who last saw the employee some hours prior to the accident. And based upon police reports, no one at the employer, Arlin included, had any awareness that Wellinger had been drinking on that day.
My guess is that there will be a settlement - a large one, at that. Even though UGS managers appeared to be on top of the situation; even though they made the accommodations that we hope considerate employers will make; even though they apparently had no direct knowledge of Wellinger's impairment on that particular day. Despite all of these factors, they are still likely to pay. Why? Because an innocent party has suffered tremendous harm and UGS, with its deep pockets (AKA liability insurance), is closest to the situation.
A Manager's Nightmare
Without question, Wellinger himself is responsible for what happened last May. He's on his way to jail. But in our system, every decision made by his employer will now be carefully scrutinized. If UGS could do it over again, they probably would have terminated Wellinger when his drinking resumed after detox; while recovering alcoholics are a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are no such protections for active drinkers. UGS, in trying to do the right thing by Wellinger, ultimately made a wrong decision. It's a managers' nightmare. You make decisions every day, in the course and flow of the business. You have no way of knowing which decisions will come back to haunt you. As he wends through the civil trial with its endless depositions and testimony, Ed Arlin will have more than enough opportunity to second guess himself. It's not going to be easy for a manager who was simply trying to do the right thing.