Employee Drug Testing: What to Know When You Need to Know

drug testing

Some employers are torn about whether to pursue drug testing for prospective or current employees. While a drug-free workplace is ideal, many employers worry about the legal considerations, the impact on employee privacy, and the cost and complexity of running such a program.

However, it is well documented that drug testing can be one of the most important ways to build and maintain a safe and productive workplace. When employees suffer from drug or alcohol abuse, the consequences can be far-reaching. From a decline in morale and productivity, to higher absenteeism, turnover, and accident rates, drugs in the workplace can wreak havoc.

So, as an employer, how can you maintain a drug-free workplace while also respecting individual privacy, and keeping costs in check? First, realize that as an employer you really do have the right to test for a wide variety of substances.

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that a majority of employers take this right seriously. In a survey of over 1,600 respondents, about 78 percent of employers test at least some employees for drugs. In industries where exposure to charges of negligence are especially high—like transportation—the rate of testing is even higher.

Some employers, on the other hand, shy away from drug testing to avoid the expense or the backlash from employees and prospects. For businesses that work with Federal agencies, there’s also the impediment of regulation in the form of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. But here’s the good news about SAMHSA: even Federal government contractors conduct drug screening.

Best Practices for Your Employee Drug Screening Program

A drug-testing program should be explicit, described in a written document, and consistent across employee units and time. Some organizations even use the same testing standards for foreign units as they do for stateside ones. These policies should clearly define the causes and consequences of drug-related testing and outcomes, including disciplinary actions.

Some elements of best practices include:

  • Tailor a program that recognizes the differences in legal restrictions in the jurisdictions where you do business—states vary considerably.
  • Create a program based on the risk profile of the role of the job or job category. Roles where substance abuse can result in larger damages need special attention.
  • Pre-employment drug testing should be used only following a conditional offer of employment. The best practice here is to inform the prospect that you are going to test and that you may use the results for the final employment decision.
  • Employee drug testing is appropriate following an incident, a change in job role, or for “reasonable suspicion.” Reasonable suspicion means there is objective evidence that substance abuse is a possible cause.
  • Use SAMHSA-certified testing labs wherever possible. Even though these may not be legally necessary, their findings will be given higher credibility if you find yourself in a legal action.
  • Remember that drug testing involves personal privacy rights. The Federal standards address the ‘big five’ drugs—amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana, opiates, and PCP—but not the plethora of prescription drugs an employee might be using. Be especially careful to observe the medical privacy of someone who might need a drug for reasons of health.

Drug screening is an especially delicate issue because it inevitably overlaps legitimate use: many, many people use drugs on a prescription basis. Even more complicated is that drugs like alcohol—and now marijuana—are legal in many or most jurisdictions.

The fact remains, if you need to know your employees are drug free, a screening program is one of your best defenses. Craft your policies carefully, implement consistently, and reap the rewards of a safer and more productive workplace. Your employees, customers, and the public at large will thank you for it.


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About MichaelGaul

Michael is a results-oriented marketing executive with over two decades of experience in employment screening, physical security, and business process management. Michael has deep experience in human capital risk management and a passion for educating business leaders and HR professionals on strategies that tangibly protect their interests. Michael serves on the Board of the Secure Cash and Transport Association (SCTA) and is a member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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