Should You Test Your Employees For Drugs?

by Kevin Casey on April 18, 2011
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Workplace drug screening can be a touchy topic. Sure, you want your employees to be healthy and productive. But if you’re not careful you might break their trust — and the law. There are generally two forms of workplace drug testing: Pre-hire screening and current-employee testing. The latter, in particular, comes with a host of cultural and legal issues. So is it worth it?

We asked Lisa Rosendahl, SPHR, for her insights. Rosendahl has nearly two decades of human resources experience and writes regularly on related issues at her blog, Simply Lisa. She’s also co-founder and editor of Women of HR. Rosendahl is generally in favor of workplace drug testing, and cites a Society for Human Resource Management statistic that roughly 10 percent of the American workforce abuses alcohol or drugs as a key reason for her support. That said, she notes that smart managers must weigh the potential benefits of ensuring a “clean” workforce against the impact to company culture and other factors. Read on for more of her thoughts on what small businesses need to know about workplace drug screening.

ISBB: What are the benefits of implementing workplace drug testing?

Rosendahl: There are so many unknowns when hiring new employees. The impact of any one new hire on a team, department, or company can be great. An employer has a responsibility to themselves, their employees, and their customers to be diligent and know — to the best of their ability — who they are bringing into their workforce. Although not required for most private-sector employers, workplace drug testing has become a standard practice for many. The benefits of a workplace drug testing program include reducing costs associated with substance abuse, such as workplace accidents, lost productivity, and workers’ compensation. The benefits go beyond costs and directly to the employer’s responsibility to provide a workplace free from risks and hazards for their employees, which can positively impact a company’s culture and overall employee morale.

What are the main disadvantages of testing new or current employees for drug use?

The benefits of a properly designed workplace drug testing program outweigh the risks. The main risk is violating the law. There are legal issues associated with workplace drug testing and employers who decide to test must follow applicable state and or local laws. Before embarking on a program, it is imperative that you understand the history of drug testing and be aware of the current legal, medical, and risk landscape. Claims an employer could face include unlawful treatment, invasion of privacy, or violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A comprehensive, well-thought-out workforce drug testing program — which addresses who should be tested and when — is essential to protecting the company. Researching and implementing a workplace drug testing program is a collaborative effort among those knowledgeable in the different areas. Reach outside the company to augment your internal knowledge and seek the advice of legal counsel before implementing. This is an area you must get right.

Can a small business run a drug screening program if it doesn’t have a human resources department?

Yes. The medical and administrative components of a workplace drug testing program can be outsourced. However, regardless of where the function is held, someone should oversee the program internally to ensure it is consistently applied and run in accordance with applicable laws — that will minimize risk. There is an advantage to having internal HR expertise in employment law when developing the program and in administering employment actions based on positive results. However, lack of an HR manager or department does not preclude an organization from having a sound workplace drug testing program. The Department of Labor offers Working Partners for an Alcohol- and Drug-Free Workplace with resources to assist small businesses.

Are there particular industries where drug screening makes — or doesn’t make — sense?

From the perspective of a more productive and secure work environment, I see workplace drug testing as a program all businesses should consider. In companies where employees are responsible for the well-being and care of others — such as a hospital or public safety agency — there may be more of a reason to do so than in other types of businesses. Companies may differ widely on policies for pre-employment screening versus testing current employees. The job applicant pool may play a role in the ultimate decision to do conduct pre-employment testing, for example. Culture will reign supreme when deciding on whether or not to test current employees and, if so, under what circumstances. Costs aside, leaders begin the conversation of weighing risk versus trust. Employers regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation have specific drug and alcohol testing requirements, and employers who do more than $25,000 of business with the federal government are required to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

Kevin Casey is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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