When addiction and/or mental health issues creep into the workplace and affect other employees, an intervention may be necessary. Maybe it’s for the bipolar coworker whose dramatic mood shifts make the smallest interactions seem like a “Floor Is Lava” obstacle course. Or, maybe it’s for the alcoholic coworker who, like the character Meredith in the beloved comedy series “The Office,” is always partying, drinking, and exhibiting poor impulse control.
Speaking of Meredith, remember the episode (Season 5, Episode 11) where her hair catches on fire while she’s drinking Screwdrivers at the company’s holiday party? In this case, even a manager as oblivious and out of touch as Michael Scott has the right instinct initially: That it’s time to intervene. The question that any good manager must answer before addressing a coworker’s addiction, though, is how to go about intervening. After all, effectively addressing a coworker’s drinking or drug use can be messy and difficult. This process is not something anyone should stumble into blindly: Preparation is key.
One way to prepare for staging an intervention for a colleague is to know what not to do; and, on this point, Michael Scott can be a great teacher, by providing a blow-by-blow account of all of the things to avoid in an intervention for a colleague. The following worst-case scenario of an intervention is worth studying, compliments of Michael Scott—if only for the reassurance that anything you do to help a colleague in need will be more helpful than these uproarious faux pas.
Things to Avoid in Helping a Colleague Who Is an Alcoholic
Before dissecting Michael’s many don’ts and zero do’s of staging an intervention, let’s examine the lead-up to the climactic scene where Meredith catches on fire at the office’s “Moroccan Christmas” party. The circumstances that pave the way for this moment can be instructive about what not to do to help an employee with an alcohol problem:
- Hosting a company party with alcohol – While this practice can be quite common, it can be a sure recipe for disaster, especially in a small office where there is someone with known alcohol issues. (Meredith has a long-running history with partying hard, problem drinking, and generally raunchy behavior, including littering her car with alcohol bottles.) At the very least, there should be some ground rules set to prevent binge drinking.
- Viewing alcoholism as a character flaw rather than a life-threatening disease – For most of the series, Michael and other colleagues seem to ignore or roll their eyes at Meredith’s alcoholism, dismissing it as just a facet of being Meredith, as opposed to a disorder that can benefit from treatment.
- Enabling a colleague’s disease by handing them alcohol – Michael actually hands Meredith a mixed drink at the party, knowing full well she has clearly struggled to manage her alcohol use. Michael is obviously concerned about his employees having a good time, but managers especially need to keep an eye out for these situations.
- Letting the drinking at a party escalate to such a degree – At a fairly low-key, small office party, it’s clear Meredith has been drinking too much and is frantically dancing, alone, in the meeting room—and to Moroccan music, attempting to belly dance and flailing when her hair catches fire. Prior to this moment, there were many opportunities for someone to speak to her, cut her off, and chaperone her to make sure she is okay. Instead, she is left near an open fire. One explanation may be that Meredith doesn’t seem to have close friends in the office, so nobody is really looking out for her in this situation; and it’s Dwight of all people who extinguishes the flames on her head, echoing a similar situation when he caught a bat on her head seasons prior. Still, anyone could have seen that Meredith’s drinking was escalating to a potentially dangerous degree and intervened earlier.
Things to Avoid When Staging an Intervention for a Colleague
Now let’s take a closer look at the sequence of steps that Michael takes upon realizing Meredith needs an intervention. (Remember this realization dawns when, after a few too many Screwdrivers, Meredith is so intoxicated that she sets her hair on fire while dancing at the holiday party.)
- Picking a terrible time to do the intervention – Naturally, Meredith’s blazing hair is a bit of a downer for everyone, so Michael, in another attempt at being the savior of the day, starts throwing out dates for an intervention. None of them work, which is when Michael suggests—no, declares—that now is a good time for the intervention. Jim and Oscar express their concerns (that this sort of thing isn’t something you can pull off without preparation, and that Michael doesn’t know how to do an intervention). Michael plows forward with the meeting, anyway.
- Inviting everyone in your office to be part of the intervention – Michael also insists that everyone in the office participate in the process. Bad choice. A better practice, one that’s more likely to convince a person to go to treatment, is to be strategic about the people you invite to take part. In a work setting, a very small group is also more discreet and respectful of privacy, so it’s better to invite just two or three people who know the person really well and are influencers in their life.
At a later moment during the intervention, Dwight says he doesn’t have anything to say, that he “likes Meredith.” The camera immediately cuts away to Dwight confessing that “actually I don’t like Meredith.” The revelation only confirms that one big problem with a forced, impromptu intervention is that you have people participating who do not care or are not honest about what you are there for.
- Rushing into an intervention without a plan – This gung-ho, savior-like sense of urgency or obligation is fairly unhelpful in the lead-up to an intervention. Sure, it’s good to be motivated—but rushing into this process without a plan is a terrible idea. It’s clear from what follows that Michael has no idea what an intervention is and is about to do more harm than good.
- A serious misconception of what an intervention is – In a “talking head” to the camera, Michael explains what an intervention is: “But really—it’s a coming together. It’s a surprise party … for people who are … who have addictions. And, you get in their face, and you scream at them, and you make them feel really badly about themselves. And then they stop.”
What part of that statement isn’t simultaneously funny and woefully misguided and incorrect? The notion that an intervention is part happy “surprise party” and part “gestalt or scared-straight” therapy can lead an intervention in a very wrong direction. Interventions are about informing the person how their actions have hurt you, from a place of honesty, compassion, and the desire to see them choose treatment of their own accord.
- Expecting the intervention to be a quick minute and that an alcoholic can just stop being an alcoholic on immediate demand – Once Michael has gotten the group into a circle, he says, “We should do a quick intervention then get back to the party”—when in reality a hasty intervention probably won’t convey the gravity of the situation (and achieve its intended aim).
Wet blanket from HR Toby points out that they cannot ask Meredith to stop drinking; they can only discuss her work performance. (From a HR perspective, this guideline probably holds true within a group context, but Toby could probably ask Meredith to address her drinking in a one-on-one conversation.) Michael clarifies that he is not asking Meredith to stop drinking and that actually he’s imploring her to quit being an alcoholic. This second request intimates a profound misunderstanding about what alcoholism is.
- Not being prepared for denial upon confronting an alcoholic – Meredith explains that she is not an alcoholic, so Michael takes a poll on who thinks she is an alcoholic—with most agreeing. When Meredith insists that she is not an alcoholic, she’s exhibiting a common response among alcoholics when confronted. Many alcoholics won’t admit to having a problem or will say they can quit when they want to.
Normally, at this juncture, the conversation would then take up the question of why they haven’t quit on their own or move to a discussion of the times they have tried to quit and failed. Michael instead begins reading off a common checklist of “signs of alcoholism” that he found on the Internet and did not read ahead of time.
Toby again implores Michael to leave the intervention to the experts. Michael says he wishes Toby was on his side just once, since he’s helping an employee in a crisis, which is kind of Toby’s job. (Poor Toby.)
- Talking about how a colleague’s alcoholism has affected you in positive ways – When Michael goes around the room and asks coworkers to talk about how Meredith’s alcoholism has affected them, Kevin shares with gratitude that her alcoholism got him free movie tickets. (Duh, Kevin: The goal is to talk about how Meredith’s alcoholism has negatively impacted you.) Kevin’s enabling statement clearly results from poor coordination. It could have been prevented by having each participant write down what they’re going to say and then doing a practice run before the real intervention.
- Trying to force your colleague to say they’re an alcoholic and using scare tactics – Later Michael tries to force Meredith to say the words “I am an alcoholic.” When she refuses, Michael escalates his coercive tactics, asking “What happens if you come into work and you’re dead?” Such efforts to control or scare a person into admitting they have a problem are more likely to push them further away from you and from the goal of getting them into treatment.
- Enabling an addiction by setting ridiculous boundaries – Michael then tries to lay down some boundaries: He says they will no longer support Meredith’s alcoholism, so the next time she lights herself on fire, they will not be putting her out.
Maybe somewhere in life Michael heard the term “enabling” and tried to put it in practice here. Nice try, Michael, but a bit botched! When we declare that we aren’t enabling someone anymore, usually self-immolation isn’t included. If someone is overdosing, saving them is not enabling them obviously.
- Physically forcing your colleague to go to rehab – Michael in welcome fashion saves his biggest gaffe for the end of the episode. After his attempt at an intervention fizzles, he meets with Meredith one-on-one behind closed doors, presumably to try to convince her to go to rehab.
After some time, they quietly emerge from Michael’s office, having come—or so it seems—to an agreement. Michael quietly asks for the number for the rehab center from Toby (suggesting that at least Toby had a plan in place for the intervention). Michael then throws a pen at his head (Poor Toby)
When Michael and Meredith are in the car, it quickly becomes evident that Michael tricked Meredith into thinking they were going to a bar. In the parking lot of Sunrise Rehab, Meredith realizes Michael’s intentions and tries to run away. Michael literally drags her kicking and screaming through the front doors. He then tries to “deposit an alcoholic” and leave.https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dSkGeXRLOJySbYLJqIWBP8K9qrlII-DO-7WcTdOxv_Y/edit#gid=1365247965
Well, it turns out that’s not how rehabs work: You can’t deposit a colleague at a rehab center against their will. There are some lockdown rehabs you can be sent to, but it requires a court order or request from a family member. And, in cases where a person is forced to go to treatment when they don’t have any motivation to stop their drinking, their prospects of recovery can be poorer.
Simply put, for recovery to happen and stick, an alcoholic has to want it. The same mantra is worth remembering when planning an intervention for a colleague, too.