The NY Times has just discovered that people in recovery make good employees (LOL). (Read it! It’s a great story.)

The connection between the restaurant industry and the recovering community has been there for as long as I can remember. In the first place, many recovering folks have backgrounds there. They’ve been managers, chefs, maitre d’s, servers, bartenders– it’s only natural that they look for opportunities based on that experience. Plus there are jobs to be had, and we can’t say that about every field.

I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into a restaurant or diner to find somebody waving at me from the kitchen. And the idea of a successful restaurant operated by treatment clients isn’t a new one, either. Delancey Street was the first example I can recall, but there have been plenty of others. The experiment seems to be successful: Delancy Street Restaurant, San Francisco.

Yet we’ve noticed how some employers struggle with the issue. Stigma plays the usual role. “I don’t know how I feel about having alcoholics in our building,” one landlord confessed when I was looking to rent space for an outpatient clinic. “Don’t worry, ours will be sober,” I assured him. “The ones you have to worry about are the customers downstairs in the bar and grill.”

And employers do need to learn how to set boundaries. We experienced some issues with a work release program where the supervisor was prone to letting our clients leave the worksite. “Oh, he really needed to go,” the boss would explain to our monitors when they showed up to check. “Some kind of family thing. I felt sorry for the guy.”

I’m sure the supervisor was only trying to help. But of course the client wasn’t at home. He was at his sister’s house smoking crack in the bedroom. Back to jail he went, unfortunately.

It all comes down to setting good workplace boundaries. Here’s the formula:

  • First, have clear rules about conduct, that address issues common to every workplace: Attendance and absence, appropriate behavior, substance use or sales, harassment, etc. Put these in a policy and post it in the obvious places.
  • Second, make sure that everyone knows the consequences for infractions. In advance— during new staff orientation, for instance, and annually afterwards.
  • Third, monitor compliance. You want everyone to know that these things are important and therefore you will remain vigilant.
  • Fourth, when an infraction occurs, follow through. Do what you promised, regardless of employee or the job they hold. Fairness is important, and fairness is a perception.

Inevitably, somebody will test you. Don’t take it personally, they just want to know if you meant what you said. Pass the test and things will go smoother. Waver and… well, another test from a different employee is on the horizon.

It’s consistency that’s the key, not the severity of punishments. No need to yell, threaten, make cutting remarks, etc. It’s about doing what you said you would do.