Companies need workers -- but people keep showing up high


Why it might be time to adjust your drug-testing policy

The headline in a recent Washington Post article caught my attention: “Companies need workers — but people keep getting high.” The article outlines the twin challenges employers have in today’s environment: unemployment rates are dropping and more applicants are failing pre-employment drug tests due to marijuana.

photo credit: Justin Tang, Canadian Press via Associated Press

Marijuana is no longer considered a menace to society. Indeed, social acceptance of pot use is increasing (for example, “Modern Family” Normalizes Cannabis Use in Most Recent Episode), which is resulting in more states legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Ohio may not be far behind.

Let’s stipulate to these

It’s likely we all agree there are certain positions where zero tolerance for drug and alcohol use is warranted. Period. Drivers, pilots, machine operators, people who handle firearms, first responders and medical personnel, among others, should continue to be required by law to prove they don’t have marijuana in their system before taking the job and should be regularly and randomly tested to ensure they’re not using on the job.

It’s also likely we have consensus that, other than pot and booze, most substances tested for are unacceptable (see What drugs do tests detect?). Finally, lets agree it’s unacceptable to drink or smoke pot while at work. Indulging is a strictly after-work activity.

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) outlines some of the benefits of drug testing. “Employers conduct drug and alcohol tests on employees for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is safety,” said Kathryn Russo, a shareholder at Jackson Lewis. “Particularly if you have employees that perform safety-sensitive or dangerous jobs, either driving vehicles or operating machinery, you want to ensure the safety of your employees and customers.” Got it. No argument here.

It makes practical business sense

Eliminating pot from your drug testing protocol does not mean you condone or advocate for the use of marijuana or illicit drugs. It is a business decision. For example, regardless of whether medical or recreational marijuana is legal in individual states, it remains illegal under federal law. Employers can refuse to hire anyone who uses it, even if they have a prescription.

But why? For most positions, as we stipulated above, when it comes to pot or booze, why do we care what people do on their own time? And for pre-employment testing, why do we care what happened 30, 60 or 90 days ago?

Considering a tightening job market, it makes practical business sense to change our approach. According to an article in The Denver Post, More Colorado businesses dropping pot from pre-employment drug tests, which cites low unemployment as the primary driver behind employers’ decision to adjust their policies. SHRM also ponders Should Marijuana Be Removed from Pre-Employment Drug Screens?

If you’re going to do it, do it right

If your personal or corporate values are such that you want to promote an alcohol- and drug-free environment, then do that. Be sincere. Be intentional. Be active. Live those values. And since a drug free safety program could save your business thousands of dollars on workers’ compensation premiums, it’s well worth it in many cases.

But if you’re going to do it, you must do it right. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a toolkit on building a drug-free workplace culture. But take care not to legislate your values through policies and procedures. You must live them and promote them in an authentic way. For instance, instead of heading out for happy hour after work every Friday, organize book clubs or kickball or other social activities that don’t revolve around drinking.

But your values and the rules associated with those values should not conflict with your attitudes and behaviors. You can't crack wise about smoking a joint or admonish, "Alcohol use is bad. We punish that. Now let's all go out for shots!"

Don’t take my word for it – talk to an attorney

It may be time to talk to an attorney specializing in employment law about options to changing your drug testing policies and practices. As the labor market tightens, it’s important to eliminate those policies and practices that discount potential candidates for marijuana use.

Andrea J. Applegate is a talent strategist who consults with clients on transforming their workforce into their competitive advantage. Applegate has nearly 20 years of experience in workforce and talent in the Columbus region and has expertise working with both businesses and nonprofit organizations.


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