Could My Company Fire Me for Getting a DUI?

An HR expert discusses fireable offenses, health insurance and whether or not venting about work is doing you any good.

Could My Company Fire Me for Getting a DUI?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

Last week, the Arizona Cardinals released one of their players for getting a DUI. I know it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it got me thinking, could my employer fire me for the same thing? Or better put, is an off-hours DUI — i.e., one that I got NOT going to or from work — a fireable offense? — Foster L., Phoenix
If you drive for a living or are required to drive in order to do your job, you may be terminated for a DUI conviction, not typically an arrest. In fact, most employee handbooks or union contracts for such jobs require you to report a DUI conviction. If you don’t, it may create a liability for the company — i.e., you’re frequently driving on company time in company property without the company having the appropriate insurance liability limits (its insurance coverage may need to change with your DUI conviction). This holds true even if you use your own vehicle because if you get into an accident while driving on company time and company business, the injured party also will sue the company because it presumably has deeper pockets.

If you don’t drive for a living, you’re still probably going to want to tell your company about any DUI arrest, for a simple reason: You’ll be taking a lot of time off work to meet with your attorney and/or go to court, and you don’t want to get fired for excessive absenteeism. Your company may be worried about whether you have an underlying drinking problem that might show up during working hours, so address the circumstances of your arrest head-on. Most companies appreciate honesty, so say something like, “It was stupid of me. I never get drunk so I didn’t even think about calling an Uber. I’ll do that the next time I feel even a bit tipsy.”

If your arrest and conviction results in a suspended license, there’s an immediate impact on your job and your company’s ability to keep you employed. If you can’t do your job (that is, you’re a truck driver, bus driver, delivery driver, etc.), you may be terminated. If the company is large enough and you’ve got a good performance record, there may be a desk job you can be transferred to during the time period you can’t drive. You may also be able to creatively work around your license suspension by using a combination of public and private transportation if travel is a requirement of your job — e.g., as a salesperson. You may also be able to videoconference as a means of getting your job done.

Of course, this becomes a much bigger issue if the off-hours arrest wasn’t just a DUI, but also a larger, more violent violation. Then all bets are off, and your top priority should be finding a good lawyer.

My family is in the midst of a major medical crisis that’s already generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital bills. I work for a small company that’s asked me to go on my husband’s insurance because they fear these costs will raise their premiums so much that they’ll become untenable. I don’t want to bankrupt them, but I don’t have to say yes, right? — Terri M., Knoxville, TN
The company can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do without opening itself up to potential discrimination claims. Notice that I said discrimination; I didn’t refer to any Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requirements because those don’t apply if your employer has fewer than 50 employees. In other words, a small business doesn’t have to offer any health care to its employees, but if it does, it can’t discriminate among who can and cannot participate in the group plan.

So no matter how nicely they approach you on this issue, it’s disparate treatment — they’re trying to deny you the equal opportunity to participate in a companywide benefit because of your partner/spouse. Plus, switching plans may end up costing you more because of higher premiums, co-pays or deductibles, and you may have to start looking for new doctors if your current physicians aren’t covered in your husband’s plan.

Realistically, the unfortunate health-related events that happened to you could happen to any of their employees — or to them. Therefore, you might want to suggest that your small-business owner explore other means of health care that would be more equitable to their employees while also bringing a greater savings to the company. Such alternatives include the Small Business Health Options Program Marketplace, converting to individual policies with a premium reimbursement policy, Direct Primary Care or even Health Sharing Ministries. All of which are better alternatives than your being singled as too expensive and a financial risk to the company.

Where’s the line between healthy venting about work and unhealthy venting about work? —Steve P., New Orleans
The line is whenever you’ve become a boring, tedious pain in the ass to whomever is listening — a friend, coworker or spouse. Seriously, when you make your colleagues feel uncomfortable, you’ve gone too far. When your friends ask you to change the topic, you’ve gone too far. And when your spouse/partner tells you to stop complaining and find another job, you’d better listen up.

The ground rules for venting about work are the same as the ones for venting about sports teams, politicians or movies. It’s okay to share your frustrations, your disbelief, your disgust and your outrage with people who know you — as long as they come with limitations on where (privately please), when (not at your cousin’s wedding) and how (screaming and swearing are best left to live sporting events). But think long and hard if you’re spending excessive time being miserable and making others miserable about your work. Only you can improve your situation, not the people who listen to you complain (or whine). Be productive with your time instead and make plans for resurrecting your life and career in 2017.

On that note, happy holidays and happy new year!

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.