Last updated: November 23, 2020
While some state and/or local governments do regulate substance testing, courts have consistently supported employers’ right to test employees and potential employees, especially if safety is a concern. Just because you, as an employer, can test, the question becomes, should you? Testing can improve safety, increase productivity, decrease absenteeism, and help you identify and remove problem employees—all positives. Handled poorly, testing programs may create morale problems in the workplace.
Let’s face it, you simply can’t predict how a given employee will react when required to take a drug test. Will the test be perceived as an invasion of privacy? A lack of trust? An honest evaluation of your existing company culture and careful planning can help you avoid, or at least dramatically reduce, morale problems associated with drug testing.
Evaluate the risks
Your first step should be to honestly evaluate the company atmosphere you’ve created. A workplace steeped in trust, where employees feel they can count on your leadership and integrity, where they’re engaged and enthusiastic, is far less likely to experience serious cultural upheaval if drug testing is introduced into the equation. When workers feel they’re valued as important members of the company, they may actually feel all the more appreciated if you frame drug testing as genuine concern for their safety and well-being.
Next, ask yourself if you have reason to be concerned enough to test. Reliable estimates indicate 75% of current drug users over the age of 18 hold jobs. According to a survey of individuals calling a national cocaine hotline, 75% say they used drugs while on the job. The federal government claims that if, on any day of the week, workers between the ages of 18-40 were tested, as many as 25% would test positive. Since substance-abusing employees are 4 times more likely to suffer work-related accidents, 10 times more likely to be absent, and 33% less productive—not to mention subject to a host of other risks—testing can be in everyone’s best interests.
Finally, let’s look at the alternative. Suppose you don’t test? Small companies are inherently more attractive to substance abusers, who tend to avoid applying to big companies that can easily afford to test. That being the case, the decision not to test can open you to all kinds of liabilities, and we’re not just talking about the considerable risks mentioned above. You could, for example, be sued for negligence if someone under the influence causes a workplace accident.
Now that you’ve decided you must test, how do you go about instituting a testing program without damaging employee trust?
As painless as possible
For better or worse, the way you introduce drug testing will have a definite impact on how your employees will feel about it, so tapping into existing expert knowledge bases only makes sense. Plenty of resources—like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug-Free Workplace Kit—are free and readily available on the Internet.
To establish an effective and accepted testing program:
Begin and end with the positives. Frame the program by emphasizing the fact that you care, that drug testing will be conducted with an eye to everyone’s well-being. Offering employee assistance for individuals with emotional and/or substance-abuse problems will reinforce your caring, encourage openness, and reassure workers that their mental and physical health are your highest concern and that you want to provide help and support to anyone who needs it.
Clearly outline the policies. As we said at the outset, make sure your program takes state, local, and federal laws into account before you establish your policies. Then put your policies in writing—including an FAQ—and conduct in-depth training sessions for supervisors, so they’re equipped to answer any questions that might arise. Training sessions for employees will ensure everyone understands. During training, you may want to pay special attention to current hot-button issues, such as the fact that the use of legalized or medical marijuana doesn’t legally prohibit you from dismissing an employee for drug use.
Talk about testing procedures. Make sure employees know your testing will be bias free and won’t single out specific employees or classes of employees (leaving you open to discrimination claims). Assure employees with special concerns, such as physical conditions that might prevent them from providing urine samples, that accommodations will be made. Whatever you do, present a consistent policy.
Provide informational materials and access to resources. Give employees all the information they need. Produce a handout detailing your company drug-testing policy, and if handouts on drug abuse and local treatment resources aren’t available free of charge from local organizations—they often are—be sure to provide this information yourself.
Wind it up on a personal, positive note. Assure every employee he/she will be treated with respect during drug testing, up to and including the fact that no one will be allowed to discuss test results. Remind everyone help is available, both through community resources and at work. Encourage employees with problems to reach out, assure them of your support, and go over employee assistance contact information one more time.