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?

Keep in mind that your organization may run the risk of a claim of negligence if you don't test applicants for such positions.

If you test for illegal drug use, there are three points in the hiring process when drug tests can be required:

Before an offer of employment is made. After a conditional offer is made, but before a candidate is formally hired. Soon after the employee begins working, with the understanding that employment is still conditional on passing the test.

Generally, requiring a test after extending a conditional offer of employment is best.

When requiring a drug test, keep in mind that there is no single test. There are several options; see the accompanying chart for specifics.

Take Action

Know your organization's policy. Review your employee handbook. Most organizations have a stated policy about drug testing and illegal drug use. Whatever the policy, follow it. Don't be the only manager to require pre-employment drug tests unless, for example, you manage the only department in which employees directly affect public safety.

Don't keep the policy a secret. If you require employees to pass a drug test as a condition of employment, make that clear up front. Include a statement to that effect on the application form, and advise candidates of the policy during the interview.

If there is no company policy, develop a policy for your department. Don't ask for drug tests using the whim system. Determine for which positions you'll require a pre-employment drug test and which you won't. Make sure the legal department or an attorney approves it.

If you require a drug test, use a vendor recommended by your Human Resources department. If there is no HR function in your organization, or the HR function has not recommended a vendor, find a reputable firm. How do you know if a firm is reputable? Ask the following questions:

How long has the firm been in business? What sort of tests does the lab do? How does the lab maintain confidentiality? What is the lab's chain of custody procedure for the sample? Is testing done under the direction of a board-certified toxicologist? Is the lab federally certified? Has the lab been checked? Is the lab insured? Will the lab guarantee its work?

Then, ask for references — and call them.

Real-World Examples

There are two sides of the drug-testing coin:

A candidate for a management position was asked to take a drug test. At the lab, he was asked to pass through a crowded waiting room carrying a specimen cup. A lab technician then watched while he urinated, ostensibly to ensure that the sample wasn't tampered with.

Then the candidate had to pass through the crowded waiting room again, this time carrying the full specimen cup. The experience didn't do much to preserve the candidate's dignity, or to give him a favorable impression of his prospective employer.

During his initial interview, a candidate for a sales management position seemed distracted and edgy. He had a hard time sitting still. He drank a lot of water and sweated profusely. He apologized for all of the behavior and chalked it up to nerves.

Still, the executive filling the position suspected a problem and scheduled a second interview in the evening, over dinner. At that interview, the candidate seemed relaxed and comfortable. The candidate seemed well qualified, and he was hired.

Less than six months later, he was terminated for poor performance. Afterward, one of the salespeople who had reported to the sales manager stepped forward. He said that during an out-of-town sales trip the manager had admitted to spending much of the night in a city park looking for drugs, and had shown up for their first sales call strung out and acting bizarrely.

In addition, the salesperson reported that sales calls often were compromised by the same behavior that the executive had seen during the initial interview. A drug test could have spared the company — and its sales staff — some embarrassment and an expensive lesson.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: