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The Case of the One Beer Too Many

A sign company owner’s support for a valuable but troubled employee hangs in the balance.




YOUR HONOR, THIS gentleman is not a criminal. He is merely the victim of a fall from grace. Ralph has worked for me for nearly 10 years and has elevated himself to the level of a well-respected craftsman. He works hard and, with rare exception, is in the shop every morning at seven o’clock. We depend on him to get all of our spray painting done and he has never let us down.”

After speaking, Grant Tracy lowered his eyes and looked at the courtroom floor in a moment of thought. He was defending his sign company’s ace spray painter, Ralph Malden, who was facing a mandatory three-year jail sentence for his third DUI offense. According to Ralph, the situation was hopeless, and his public defense attorney had advised him to brace for the worst.

If Grant had never attended college for an engineering degree and then gone to work for his uncle’s sign company before purchasing the place, he felt he could have made it big as a criminal-defense lawyer. He was a gifted speaker — both sharp-witted and compassionate — making him extremely persuasive. And in the courtroom that day, he had to dig deep into his verbal skill sets. However, his motivation was much deeper than that of Ralph’s lawyer because he was about to lose one of Starshine Signs’ greatest assets.


Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.


LAWRIN ROSEN is the president of ARTfx (Bloomfield, CT). Email him at

Raising his eyes to lock gazes with the woman in the black cloak behind the stand before him, Grant continued, “Mr. Malden understands the gravity of his crime. He has expressed endless remorse for his careless actions. He has sworn to me that if he is allowed a break, he will never again touch a drop of alcohol and he will attend regular AA classes. Having owned my company for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned to judge character and, therefore, I will earnestly attest to the change I’ve seen in Mr. Malden’s attitude. He has begun a new lifestyle. I stand before you, as his boss and mentor, to respectfully and humbly request an offer for one more chance.”

The judge scratched the top of her head. She looked down at her desk and then up to the court ceiling, seemingly immersed in contemplation. “Mr. Tracy,” she called forth, “Thank you. You can sit down.” Then there was dead silence.

Nearly a minute passed while the judge scribbled notes on a pad. She then focused on Ralph, who looked very out-of-place in a suit and tie. “Mr. Malden, based on Mr. Tracy’s eloquent testimony, I have decided to give you one more ‘bite of the apple.’ I am giving you a break that you better live up to because if I, or any agent of this court, sees you here again, you will go to jail for a very long time. I wish you good luck, and I pray to God almighty that you don’t blow it.” She then took a sip of water before banging her gavel and calling out loudly, “This court is adjourned!”


Ralph’s head fell backward in his seat as he exhaled audibly. To his immediate left, his wife’s head pitched forward with her body convulsing around sobs. Sitting on Ralph’s right, the court-appointed defense attorney uttered two words: “Wow. Unbelievable.”

Later that same day, Ralph contacted the local AA office and enrolled in their 12-step program. Because his license was suspended, he had to arrange for rides. Fortunately, Grant handled Ralph’s transportation not only to the AA group sessions, but to Starshine Signs every morning, and back home every night. Ralph had dodged a bullet and his life was back on track with newly found sobriety, a loving young wife, a baby on the way, and a solid job with a gracious and concerned boss.

For six solid months Ralph attended classes and kept his nose clean and to the grindstone. His performance and attitude, which had always been more than adequate, despite extended previous nighttimes of inebriation, actually improved. In fact, Grant, who had never dwelled on, nor boasted of his amazing court performance months earlier, even promoted Ralph, giving him a raise and hiring him a helper to assist with body work. His workmates were relieved; Ralph was genuinely a good guy and they knew the difficulties of finding a new spray painter.

During this ‘era of good feeling’ at Starshine, Grant turned his focus elsewhere. In the meantime, the shopworkers erected a backboard and hoop in the company parking lot and started playing basketball during breaks and after work. A noticeable sense of calm permeated the shop. All was good.

After work one Friday, Grant ventured outside during a basketball game. The mood was festive and the guys were having a blast. He kept his appearance unobtrusive to savor the moment and to bask in the harmony of his workforce. However, across the parking lot on the step-landing at the side door of the shop, Grant spotted a couple of six-packs of beer with some of the bottles open. Ralph, whose back was to Grant, sank a three-pointer, then took a break from the action to grab one of the open bottles and swig the balance down in a gulp.


The Big Questions

  • Should Grant sit Ralph down right there and have a talk?
  • Does the infraction constitute immediate disciplinary action, possibly even dismissal?
  • Or is there another way to handle this?
David E.
Frederick, MD

This situation needs immediate attention. Ralph should be pulled aside away from [everyone] else to discuss the gravity of the situation. Plenty of time has passed but a discussion with Ralph about honesty and the reality of things needs to happen and [Grant needs to] question him about his future and what he wants in life and the ramifications due to his current actions. Being a mentor in this situation more than a boss is the most important thing to get the person back on track for himself and his family more than [for] the business. Once the person is on track, everything else will follow. No one is perfect but we need to always teach people about learning from mistakes to be able to grow.

Robert D.
South Burlington, VT

Grant should sit Ralph down, tell him how deeply disappointed he is in his behavior and should suspend him, immediately and without pay, for two weeks. Grant should emphasize that Ralph’s actions have jeopardized his continued freedom from incarceration, his job and the reputation of the company. His unforgivable actions are also putting Grant’s good name and reputation at risk.

After two weeks Ralph needs to report back in and tell Grant and the staff how he plans to commit the rest of his life. If he chooses to stay, he needs to apologize to the staff and ask for their help to keep him sober in the future. By making them all accountable for Ralph’s behavior, they might have a chance to change Ralph’s behavior for the better.
If Ralph chooses to leave, he should be told Grant and the company won’t be available as character witnesses should he need them in the future.

John P.
Skokie, IL

Grant needs to snatch Ralph into his office and have a serious discussion. He also needs to get Ralph’s AA sponsor involved immediately. Ralph has fallen and will need lots of help getting back up. Ralph’s family needs to be involved, as well.

A good start, from the company’s standpoint, is to ban alcohol from the work premises. The others will understand. To an alcoholic, one is too many and a thousand are not enough.

Jim F.
Stanley, NC

One more beer for a recovering alcoholic is a clear signal that more DUIs are probable. The boss who campaigned for leniency for his good employee owes it to himself, this offender and all his other workers to confront the employee and tell him there will be a private meeting… to give a final warning that resumption of alcohol consumption and resulting problems will result in dismissal and no future defense efforts.

Bruce S.
Scotts Valley, CA

“Guilty and history. Third time’s a charm. What if he drove drunk and killed someone?”

Skip M.
Albany, CA

Three DUIs means he certainly drove more often than that impaired. He had his chance to clean up his act and clearly failed. I would fire him immediately… ending a never-ending cycle of distraction and disappointment.

Chester K.
Belmont, WV

I believe that Ralph should be confronted but at another time. By all means not in front of anyone. He needs to be told that he is a good employee, that he should not get started down that road again and how it could affect his life.

Steve E.
Foothill Ranch, CA

Fired on the spot. You cannot help people that do not want to help themselves.

Clayton L.
Niagara Falls, ON, Canada

I personally would question why anyone was drinking [on work grounds] and for liability reasons would have to dismiss this particular employee unless he was willing to go to an approved rehab facility. Alcoholism is terrible but what is even worse is if his actions cause injury to others. Seek professional help or bye-bye.

Robert B.
Oakdale, CT

… this was after hours, [so] unfortunately, I doubt that any formal HR actions could be made but that doesn’t mean that a man-to-man talk shouldn’t happen. Maybe if the possible result of going back on his word to totally stop drinking is pointed out in a tactful way, he will continue on the AA program and continue to improve both his personal and work life. Another solution is to make the business property alcohol-free. It won’t stop him from drinking elsewhere but at least the liability to the business will be removed or at least limited.

Willis W.
Lakewood, CO

Coming from someone that has had an alcoholic in the family (who is 19 years sober now) this story hits home with me.

I would immediately pull Ralph to the side and ask him why he is drinking. After so much work, is it really worth it? He has come so far and what if he wound up back in the courtroom? I would tell him that I wouldn’t be there to testify for him this time… I would ask him to reconsider drinking again. If he didn’t want to reconsider then there is no job for him at the company anymore.

Emma L.
North Kansas City, MO

I would smack the beer out of his hand and say, “Hey man! What are you doing?! Get that out of your face!!!” Then I would tell my other employees, “Guys… you know he struggles. Don’t bring that stuff around here anymore.” Then I would kick their butt in basketball [like a] boss.


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