A plumbing company, a mechanist, and a landscaper are all down on their luck. It sounds like the beginning of an excellent “dad joke?” But these companies reported symptoms of a middling work force: lower productivity, increased accidents, absenteeism, and higher turnover. And, as it turns out, these symptoms are typical of a gap in workplace policy, namely a bad or non-existent drug testing policy.
If you recall the article title, you may have already guessed that these companies were candidates to study the effects of drug testing in the workplace. The characteristics that plagued our participants are typical of underdeveloped company drug policies; they weren’t necessarily the “bad seeds,” but more of a cross-section of industries with various sized gaps in their drug programs.
The results of this and other studies have been generally uniform in measuring drug testing’s effects on metrics like workplace happiness, safety, and profits and losses. Looking at the data for these and other companies, we can look at ways that certain drug testing policies might affect your company.
The cost of not testing
First, let’s discuss the price tag of not having a drug policy in place. The most common illicit substances and substance classes that employers test for include: amphetamines, opiates, barbiturates, cannabinoids (though nationwide cannabis reform is changing the discussion here), cocaine, benzodiazepine, and oxycodone. Generally speaking, chemical dependence on these substances has been linked to serious workplace accidents, missed work, loss of production, theft and turnover, as well as more pernicious problems such as poor decision making and lower co-worker morale.
All these effects impact a company’s bottom line. From an employer’s perspective, risk of accidents translates to more workers’ compensation claims, higher insurance rates, and legal expenses. Absenteeism breeds turnover, compounding recruiting and training costs. All of this contributes to a negative public perception and can damage a company’s goodwill.
So shouldn’t you drug test then? At first glance, there is much to be gained by drug testing of some sort, but …
Not all testing is equal
Not all drug testing is equally effective, nor indicative of the same risks. As a baseline, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) sets drug testing procedural guidelines. Following these guidelines can make drug testing more cost effective and put you on firm legal footing. Beyond that, employers must decide when to test, as well as how often.
As a rule, there are three types of drug testing: 1) pre-employment applicant testing, 2) for-cause employee testing, and 3) random testing. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks, and there is no reason why an employer can’t employ all three to varying degrees, with certain limitations.
Pre-employment testing. One hospital study measured applicant drug test metrics. Those who tested positive for illicit drugs upon application had a 28% higher turnover rate and a 64% higher rate of disciplinary action against them. And yet, the study showed no correlation between pre-employment drug test results and job performance (meaning attendance and productivity).
Despite the mixed results of pre-employment drug testing efficacy, this type of test is the most prevalent, likely because it’s the most obvious gatekeeping tool. But if job performance is your primary concern, pre-employment testing may not be the best option – or at least not something you should use in isolation for its low predictive ability to determine whether employees will be a negative for the company.
For-cause testing. Justifications for cause-based testing include post-accident testing, determining fitness for a particular duty (especially safety-sensitive roles), and patterns of behavior that create a “reasonable suspicion” of drug abuse. For-cause testing seems to strike a fair balance between employer interests and worker freedom; however, it lacks the gatekeeping function of pre-employment testing and, as we shall see, also lacks benefits of randomized testing. It also can subject employers to liability risks for employment discrimination if they fail to accurately document the reasons for the test.
Random testing. Here’s where things get interesting. The deterrent effect of a looming, random drug test is obvious, but lost in first impressions is this: the actual frequency of testing doesn’t affect the benefits of a random drug test policy. In one study, occupational groups who were randomly tested reported substantially lower accident rates than the untested groups, regardless of test frequency.
So, it turns out you can reap the benefits of randomized drug testing without incurring the cost of frequent testing. The threat of a future random test appeared to have just as much positive effect as actually testing the employees.
Interestingly, the study also found that the positive impact is stronger with white-collar professionals, as well as operations and technical workers. And in a meta study, ongoing random drug testing showed reduction in overall drug-positive results: from 13.6% of the workforce in 1988 to 4.4% in 2016.
Random testing benefits are many, but random testing is also the most intrusive as it affects employee lifestyle outside of work.
This begs the question: what do workers think of drug testing, randomized or otherwise? Does it affect workplace happiness and morale?
A working-class hero
Worker happiness may not be your bottom line, but it’s an extremely reliable indicator of conditions that do affect bottom line. Major characteristics of job satisfaction include: recognition of individual effort, quality and safety of physical environment, proper supervision, and connection with coworkers.
These characteristics of high job satisfaction inversely relate to workplace symptoms associated with inefficient drug policies. Not surprisingly, then, studies have shown that employees are generally in favor of a fair drug testing policy. Those in safety-sensitive jobs prefer drug testing 95% of the time; healthcare workers, 92%; technical and mechanical workers, 81%; and even those in low safety-risk office positions support some form of drug testing 69% of the time.
Gatekeeping against workers’ use of dangerous drugs has a significant effect on employee job satisfaction, which makes sense. Employees appreciate an environment that is safe and companionable, and an employer who works hard to maintain and improve upon the status quo.
The Bottom Line
Let’s return to our plumber, mechanist and landscaper. How did their testing (or lack of testing) affect their businesses? The measure there was the bottom line—and the reports were eye-opening.
After standardizing drug testing, Jerry Morland’s landscaping company recorded an extra $50,000 per year in increased productivity. W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractors saved $100,000 on workers’ compensation premiums. Warner Plumbing saved $385,000 its first year because its work culture began to draw experienced, degreed mechanics, boosting productivity. In fact, Warner now has a waiting list for hires, saving it $20,000 a year in personnel advertising costs.
As we’ve observed already, balance is key to a beneficial drug testing policy. From a strictly business sense, of course, return on investment must be considered. Alongside projected boosts in productivity, an employer should also consider the hard costs of testing. What methods of testing will you employ? How often? What types of drugs will you test for? More common drugs like cocaine and marijuana likely warrant screening—but what about some of those “fringe” substances that are rarer but may be more dangerous?
It’s an exercise in number crunching and projections. But, with a bit of fine-tuning, there can be large margins to add to your bottom line in addition to the intangibles.
State law and the ADA
Although no federal or state law prohibits drug testing, a small number of states do have unique restrictions on the practice (Ohio not among them). Additionally, there may be drug testing requirements placed on private companies who secure government work.
Finally, as always, you should have a good relationship with an employment attorney. Work with your attorney to familiarize yourself with employment law, particularly where drug testing affects hiring and firing decisions. Notably, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) individuals with a history of substance abuse may qualify as having a disability, so a change in employment status based on drug test results may be seen as discrimination.
This article is meant to be utilized as a general guideline for drug testing of employees. Nothing in this blog is intended to create an attorney-client relationship or to provide legal advice on which you should rely without talking to your own retained attorney first. If you have questions about your particular legal situation, you should contact a legal professional. Nick Weiss of The Gertsburg Law Firm can be reached at 440-528-1233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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