HR Connection – drug, alcohol testing

Extent of alcohol, drug use may make testing worthwhile
We’ve been having problems with some employees who come to work after they’ve consumed alcohol. We suspect that some of our attendance problems are also linked to alcohol use by employees (hangovers, etc.). I know alcohol/drug testing is pretty common these days but I’ve also heard that it can present some legal difficulties. What can you tell me about a good (defensible) alcohol/drug-testing program?
According to the U.S. Public Health Service, more than 10 million people in the United States are alcoholic.
The same source tells us that around 10% of the work force may be labeled alcoholic (i.e., unable to control their drinking to the point of intoxication once alcohol consumption has begun).
Additionally, one in ten employees has tried or will try other drugs (e.g., marijuana, amphetamines, PCP, etc.).
The cost to American businesses is huge, in excess of $100 billion every year, so we are talking about a major problem. Costs attached to lost productivity, inefficiency, absenteeism and such can quickly multiply.
As you relate in your question, you are seeing some of these signs which tells me now is a good time to further investigate the situation.
Interestingly, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, excessive alcohol use is most common among professional, semi-professional, and managerial employees while drug use is lowest among this group. Keep that in mind as you research your drug-testing program.
Nationally, the frequency of drug testing is increasing. However, as with any test, issues surrounding the reliability (such as consistency) and validity (i.e. accuracy) of the specific drug test which is used are primary. Drug tests typically are chemical in nature with examination of a urine sample being the most common type. When we look at the reliability of chemical tests, their reliability actually exceeds that of many traditional written tests.
Conversely, assessing the validity of chemical tests is another matter. Basically, what we are talking about here is accurately differentiating between those who are using drugs (i.e., “positives”) from those who are not (i.e., “negatives”).
We probably have all heard stories about someone who ate a poppy seed muffin and then tested positive for heroin use. I think Seinfeld may have even had an episode on the topic. In any event, when it comes to a “false positive” of this kind, it is no laughing matter. That is especially true in light of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control report that mass drug screening can incorrectly identify the presence of drugs in up to two-thirds of the cases.
Critics of drug testing focus on those findings and contend that drug testing is an unacceptable invasion of a person’s privacy. Drug testing has also been criticized for being too expensive (tests can range in price from $10 to $100 per specimen). Questions also surround the types of positions for which drug testing is appropriate (e.g., “dangerous” jobs, professional jobs, managerial jobs, jobs which require machine/equipment operation, etc.).
What then should be your approach to implementing a reasonable drug-testing program? Research by Murphy, Barlow, & Hatch, industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists with expertise in this area, may be instructive. They suggest that the following guidelines be considered when implementing a drug-testing program:
1) The organization should issue a statement to employees describing its policy on drug abuse and testing.
2) If employees belong to a union, the company’s drug policies and testing program must be submitted to collective bargaining before being put into effect. Employers who refuse to bargain with the union are subject to charges of unfair labor practices.
3) Drug-testing procedures should apply to all employees. No specific group should be singled out for testing.
4) Current employees should be tested only in documented cases of job impairment or because of other valid indications of probable cause.
5) Employees should be informed in advance of drug-testing procedures including the drugs being screened for, the type of tests, and the consequences of refusing to be tested.
6) All positive tests should be confirmed by a second test.
7) All results of drug tests should be kept confidential.
As these guidelines indicate, the emphasis should be on fairness and objectivity. The idea is not to single people out or make examples out of those who are using, but rather to set a high standard of conduct and professionalism which is expected of everyone who works for the organization. A sound drug-testing program is not used selectively. It is used in accordance with accepted employment practices (e.g., the EEOC guidelines).
As a final note, you may want to investigate the use of an employee assistance program (EAP) while you do research into drug testing. If you do not already have one, an EAP may be a nice adjunct to a drug-testing program.
EAPs are used to offer counseling services for employees who are having various problems, including alcohol and/or drug misuse/abuse. Typically, an EAP provides a multi-service approach with some combination of education, early detection, and referral.
My consulting experience tells me that drug testing is becoming more common among southeastern Wisconsin business organizations. It certainly is more common than it was a mere decade ago. And, I have every reason to believe that it will increase in use over the next few years.
In the final analysis, drug testing is not cheap. But as I have pointed out in this article, the costs associated with alcohol/drug testing are far outweighed by the costs of not testing for alcohol and other drugs.
HR Connection is provided by Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., of Organization Development Consultants in Brookfield. He can be reached via e-mail at, or at 827-8383.
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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