Drugs – part of society, but not part of employment?

Monday, August 11th, 2008 - career management, Employer, Employment, Job Advert, Job Application, job hunting, job search, recruitment

Drugs in employment


I read this story this morning with some horror. Not only does it show how the financial barriers to access drugs are becoming lower – 20p a hit is around the same price as a cigarette; plus the tragic loss of life. It also shows how “accepted and normal” the whole drug taking culture has become amongst the young: this woman had taken it as far as a mail-order business.

When I worked with Dow Chemicals in the 1990’s, the worlds second largest chemical company, there was a standard form you had to sign even as a contractor when visiting any of their sites, be they production locations or offices. Effectively it said in the interests of Health and Safety, you could as a visitor be taken aside at any point and tested for drugs, or be ejected from site for no apparent reason at any point, and may be banned for life. Having agreed to always be accompanied by a safety trained Dow employee, it also said that if the site blew up, you accepted it wasn’t necessarily their fault, but you could elect to leave an address where your remains when they became accessible could be sent. I didn’t have a problem signing the form, as I was clean of drugs, never drank before going onsite, and had signed similar but less dramatic forms when entering sites for both BP, Shell and Unilever. The form came in a five page copy pack, and you got one of the copies as a co-signatory, and on one occasion my father – who was the addressed person my remains were to be sent to – happened to see his name on the copy and read it. After gulping a bit at legalise, he asked “is this legal, and necessary?”

As a contractor/visitor, it was freely your choice to enter these sites, and if you disagreed with these rules you were free to say no – and subsequently not do business with them. However, as an employee, do you have to abide by the same rules; and as an employer, when is it reasonable to ask employees to accept testing for drugs?

Employers and drugs

Lets take the employer first. The biggest leverage for drug testing is pre-employment – its one of the reasons that pre-employment medical screening is increasing. However, should a trace test prove positive for something, where does it become reasonable to refuse employment? This is not a legal commentary, and as legislation and case law changes continually, it is always recommended that you take advice on such matters from a suitably qualified HR lawyer. But, in summary, in the case of the young lady above, GBL is a legal drug – and hence it would seem over zealous to stop employment in such cases; however, if large traces of alchol were found, and the job required skilled machine operation or driving, a reasonable no employment case could be constructed. Illegal drugs are a different case, and even if your normal work doesn’t involve chemical handling, a heavy cocaine user would seem a brave choice. However, in all positive cases whether the element found be legal or illegal, my personal feeling is to offer the candidate a second chance – that way, if they know they are a regular user, most likely they will withdraw their application over forcing you as the employer to send them a legal “no thanks because” letter.

What about employees in employment? Once past the trial period, then the case has to be handled via the disciplinary procedure. Whatever the outcome, it should be pointed out that most charities which support the rehabilitation and recovery of both drug takers and alcohol abusers, supported by many employers groups, can show that in the cases where employers provide support systems to aid employee recovery that previously good employees after recovery return to be great employee’s. So, its not always a case of sack them being the best or most economic answer.

In the case of the employee or candidate applicant, be aware that many more employers are applying compulsory pre-employment medical screening. If you take drugs or like to party on alcohol – lets be honest, when you are young who doesn’t drink excessively at times; then I suggest that if you are planning a period of job seeking that you lay totally off the drugs and keep the alcohol consumption down for at least a month before your first interview. If you want a mental check level, then ask yourself could you legally drive a car at this moment – that’s the level a modern trace element tester can test for, over a six month history period. The potential employer should make you aware of their application and employment process, and every modern application process will have either a compulsory or optional “at our discretion, we may ask for your medical records or for you to attend a medical check” clause in the application document. If you have existing medical conditions, then do yourself a favour and state them – once you have put them on the application form, you can’t be excluded from the applications process under the Disability Discrimination laws

Employee drugs process

Now, lets say like 99% of people, you pass the employment process and are employed. But, like most you suffer some form of incident, and happen to start over em-biding on drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, this de-gradates your performance, and your boss notices, and asks for a meeting where he suggests you take a company sponsored drugs test – what can you do? Firstly, unless its a Health and Safety matter in the care and undertaking of your job – in which case, often medical checks are a regular and routine/periodic matter – ask them to put the request in writing. Take that letter to an employment solicitor, and ask for advice – please, be totally honest with your legal representative, they can help you. Normally you will be asked subsequently by the HR Department to a formal interview, where legally you can ask a friend to attend with you – make that your legal representative. You may not be able to keep your job, but you may be able to exit with a relatively clean reference on your performance up to the incident; or may be able to negotiate a period of suspension where by your problem can be address through an agreed and employer monitored program.

Drugs are personally not my thing, but when employers are faced with a shortage or skilled talent and more competition for good people, an acceptance of modern drug culture and an adult address of usage in both applicants and employee’s can bring about a more enthused and encompassing group culture if problems are tackled sympathetically. Employees but particularly applicants should be aware of modern processes and procedures with regards employment, ceasing their drug taking and monitoring their alcohol intake during the employment process – its your life, your career and hence your choice: but if you really want that job, you now know the price.


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