Ethics: Drug Testing in the Workplace

by Russell Ethridge

Today’s Machining World Archives September 2006 Volume 02 Issue 9

Among many hats I wear, I handle human resources for a transmission remanufacturing facility with around 35 employees, including office staff. Our management asked me to develop a drug testing policy. I checked with our lawyers, who said we could do whatever we wanted since we’re a private company and there are no laws on the topic in our state. I don’t support drug use or any illegal conduct, but I’m wondering how to develop a policy that doesn’t seem overbearing. I’m also sure a few great employees will have problems with this because I’ve heard innuendo about what goes on during their garage band practices after work and on weekends. We haven’t had any problems on the floor or in the office that I can see. Where do I start?

Like the compass that identifies north but shows all 360 degrees, the answer depends on where you want to go. If the object is to root out drug use without regard to whether it affects performance, then test frequently, randomly and, of course, before employment. But drugs vary in their ability to be detected, and you may catch 100% of the casual marijuana users and few of the users of hard drugs such as cocaine. The reasons are chemical. The evidence of marijuana use stays in the body for weeks, well after the effects have worn off. Cocaine, however, leaves the body in days. The result could be that a random test on Tuesday catches your star employee who smoked marijuana three weeks ago in the privacy of his basement, but misses the cocaine user who put his paycheck up his nose at the bar Friday night and was planning on selling the tool holder he stole from the floor Monday.

Your question raises broader concerns about the involvement of employers in the private affairs of their employees. Drug testing is common because it is easy and convenient. (If only identifying terrorists was so easy.) But drug testing may not reveal much about employee performance in the workplace. Spouse abuse and drunk driving are also criminal acts, which many would say are much more harmful, at least to others. At a minimum, both demonstrate respectively poor judgment and lousy impulse control, not qualities one wants in a working environment. But you probably aren’t considering putting breathalyzers in employee cars or asking spouses to certify workers as non-abusive. That would cross the line for most people.

The inquiry, then, should be if conduct outside of work affects the performance and safety of your workforce. Then it is your issue. An employer in Michigan made national news last year when he decided he did not want to employ smokers, not just prohibit smoking on the property. The courts upheld his decision. His rationale was that smoking hurt his bottom line through increased health care costs. It affected his workplace. He gave people time to quit and offered smoking cessation assistance. Some smokers quit smoking and some quit the job.

Do you really need to test if there are no issues affecting your workplace? Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton may have been on to something with “don’t ask; don’t tell”. If it doesn’t affect you, do you really want to know? Once you know, are you willing to face the consequences of losing the great employee who might test positive but would never come to work impaired and never misses a day?

In the private sector, aside from obvious legal issues like age discrimination, you are free to decide where on the compass you want to go, and you must weigh your objectives against the costs and consequences of the course you choose.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics: Drug Testing in the Workplace

  1. AvatarGeorge Norman

    I ran a center-less grinder in a shop for 7 years. I had an excellent attendance, safety, and production history. I was randomly tested one Monday morning. I was not under the influence then, and I was never under the influence or impaired while I was at work. I clocked in and gave my job, which I loved, 100%. I produced quality parts that I took pride in. When I clocked out I expected 100% of my time, to be mine. I failed the test. I was fired and I lost about a week of sick days, a month of vacation time, and my unemployment was denied. If you have reason to believe an employee is impaired,or he drives a company vehicle over the road, or there is an accident then test them. Testing just to be testing…I would think that time could be used for something more productive and morale building, like making quality parts.

  2. AvatarBigfoot

    As an employer, I was concerned with the safety, productivity, and attitude of my machinists. Not how they spent their personal time. As an employee, I vehemently objected to being accused or suspected of using drugs. There was never a question of passing the test. My concerns were having to ‘prove’ over and over that I did not use drugs. I am not talking about ‘for cause’, or as pre-employment tests.


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