Corner Office: Drug Tests for Employees?

Pop quiz! Decide whether each of the following statements is true or false:

1. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that on any given day, 12-25 percent of employees age 18-40 would test positive for illegal drug use.

2. The Research Triangle Institute estimates that the United States loses $26 billion annually because of drug abuse.

3. According to the American Management Association, approximately 76 percent of employers require pre-employment drug testing.

4. In order to protect the safety of employees, customers and the public, you have a legal obligation to require pre-employment drug testing for at least some positions.

5. Pre-employment drug tests will deter users of illegal drugs from applying for jobs at the organizations that require them.

6. Pre-employment drug testing may undermine morale.

7. Pre-employment drug testing does not guarantee that your workplace will be drug free.

Complex Issue

OK, we admit we rigged the test — all the statements are true.

Even in today's highly complex workplace, few issues are as complex as drug testing. That's because illegal drugs are a little bit like the elephant being described by the blind men. Some see drug use as a health issue, and others as a legal problem. Some see illegal drug use as a moral failing while others see it as recreational activity. For some, drug use is a major public policy challenge, and for others it's the flashpoint of discussions about personal privacy. And for all those reasons, drug use is also an employment issue.

Much of the debate centers on illegal drug use of employees. For now, our concern is on pre-employment testing.

The goal of pre-employment testing is pretty straightforward: To discourage users of illegal drugs from applying to your organization, and to identify those who do apply before they're hired.

Almost nothing else about drug testing is so straightforward. Although the tests can identify illegal drug users, they also can be insulting to people who have never used illegal drugs. People who use drugs may go undetected (many users have become skilled at foiling the tests), while non-users may be stigmatized by false positive results. And most tests detect only the presence of drugs in someone's system; they do not measure whether the person's performance is impaired. Finally, relatively few employers test for alcohol abuse, though alcoholism is much more prevalent than illegal drug use.

In short, drug testing is imperfect. If your organization already has a testing policy, follow it. If not, weigh the potential benefits against the downsides and decide what seems best.

Is the Public At Risk?

Our advice is to require testing when impairment because of illegal drug use puts the employee, co-workers, customers or members of the public at risk. Consider these risk factors:

Is the employee directly responsible for public safety? (e.g., health- and dental-care personnel, airline personnel, bus drivers, emergency response workers, security personnel.) Does the employee work with children? Is the employee indirectly responsible for public safety? (e.g., truck drivers, public utility workers.) Does the employee work with heavy equipment, chemicals, live electrical wiring, or other dangerous (e.g., hot coffee) or hazardous equipment or materials? Is the employee required to climb or work at a potentially risky height (e.g., washing windows)? Is the employee responsible for valuable or breakable merchandise?

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