When the principal has a drinking problem

Q: I adore my principal, but he has a drinking problem that’s getting in the way of his ability to do his job. I want him to get help, but I don’t want to hurt his reputation by reporting him. I also don’t want to jeopardize my own career if he’s retaliatory. If he were my subordinate, I could refer him to our employee assistance program and write him up for things like missing meetings or falling asleep at his desk. Since I don’t supervise him, I’m unclear about my options. And like I said, I’m not looking to get him in trouble. I’m genuinely concerned about him. He’s gone from being happy and invested in the school to checked out and sloppy. It’s pretty obvious that he’s even drinking at work. 

A: The fact that he’s your supervisor does complicate the situation. Whether you approach him directly, talk to human resources or contact your community superintendent, you run the risk of backlash. There also may be no guarantee of anonymity. That said, you care about him and want to do the right thing.

Here are some possible approaches:

  • Talk to him and express concern. Consider the nature of your relationship before diving in. Tread carefully and focus on behavior, such as missed meetings, frayed relationships or a tendency to fall asleep at his desk. Keep in mind that this might not go well, especially if he’s in denial or defensive. If you approach him and it’s contentious, it will be a he-said she-said situation. If you go this route, take notes after the discussion.
  • Even if he’s not open to conversation, keep in mind that dropping the subject entirely may not be in anyone’s best interest. You can consult your union for advice or look at a code of conduct handbook for procedural guidance. You may have an ombudsman who can help you. There also may be ways to make an anonymous report. If that feels underhanded, consider the benefits of you being the messenger. You can put the principal’s problems into context, sharing that it’s a recent development or that he has a long and positive reputation in the community. The tone will be much different coming from you than from a horrified parent or student. If it helps, consider how you’d feel if he got into a car crash while driving a student somewhere. When students’ safety is at stake, you have a moral obligation to report.

On the flip side, here are some things you shouldn’t do.

  • Don’t stage an intervention. He may simply not care that his behavior is negatively impacting staff or students. This also needs to be done (if at all) with the assistance of a trained professional.
  • Don’t diagnose him. He may need medical help, but you’re not responsible for him, and your conclusions may be off-base.
  • Don’t do your own investigating. Trust in the process.
  • Don’t cover for him. If there are no consequences, why should he change? Even when he’s not drinking, the alcoholism may be affecting his performance.
  • Don’t assume anyone will make him get treatment. The system likely will provide resources for addiction, but he has to want help.

Finally, if you’re worried about your boss’ job security, keep in mind that higher-ups rarely want to lose a principal. It’s destabilizing. His supervisors won’t simply fire him; they’ll look into the allegations and verify their accuracy. Their goal will be to help him recover so he can do his job well. In the meantime, while it’s great that you care about your principal, look out for yourself, too. As you state, the goal is to help him without jeopardizing your own career.


Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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