Laura Johnson asks if drug testing office workers is ethical?
A cocaine culture at the criminal bar. Debauched behaviour on banking trading floors fuelled by cocktails of amphetamines. Media parties where ecstasy is dished out to the luvvies as freely as the Bolly. We’ve all heard these rumours of excess or know someone with a shocking tale to tell, but for most of us, drug use is frowned upon in the workplace and the business world is taking an increasingly hard line on it.
Office drug testing is on the rise, with research from four leading screening companies showing a significant increase in the number of employers randomly testing their employees. The four companies – Alere, BioClinics, Synergy Health and LGC Group – each reported a growth in the number of annual tests carried out of between 40 per cent and 470 per cent in the last four years. But how comfortable would you feel as a manager asking an employee to provide a sample of their urine for a drugs test? Could it be perceived as degrading or offensive? Is it unacceptably intrusive or is it a modern day necessity?
Workplace drug-testing itself isn’t a new phenomenon. Traditionally used in occupations that involve operating heavy machinery or driving, the main justification for anti-doping actions in the workplace has in the past been safety. Most people can accept this; it's reassuring to know a heady mix of narcotics isn’t fuelling the people controlling some of the biggest vehicles on the road for example. However, the spread of testing into non safety-critical occupations brings up ethical questions around personal privacy and human rights because the focus is less on the well-being of employees, customers and the public at large, and more about safeguarding the reputation of the company. Employees instinctively have less sympathy for these causes.
However, with protecting brand value and public image high on most corporate agendas, drug use is a thorny issue companies are no longer able to feign ignorance to. Policies setting out a zero-tolerance of the use of illegal substances have become HR best practice and standard staff manual fodder, but enforcement remains a grey area with many managers taking a more laissez-faire attitude than their hard-line corporate edicts dictate. Even in the most honourable of professions, it’s not unknown for a blind eye to be turned to an inappropriately powdered nose. This disconnect between policy and practice already creates a confusing message for employees. Combine this with the introduction of unforgiving drug testing and the inconsistency is bound to raise eyebrows amongst workers and send morale plummeting. There’s no doubt about it, random drug testing is not going to be popular with your people.
That’s not to say the issue of drugs use is adequately dealt with by a written policy. Clearly it's not. But equally, tackling the issue of drugs in an office environment can’t simply be a clinical application of science governed by an uncompromising ‘fail the test and you’re out’ mentality. We’re not dealing with international athletes after all and the tests aren't without their deficiencies. For example, an important consideration for employers considering this approach is that a test merely proves the presence of a substance in an individual’s system rather than showing whether the person is under the influence at the time of testing. When you consider the active ingredients in cannabis can remain detectable in a person’s urine for several days after the effects have worn off, this presents an ethical dilemma as a weekend indulgence can result in a positive result in the office on Monday. Can an employee morally be reprimanded for what they do in their own private time if it’s not affecting their ability and performance at work?
But for me, my biggest gripe with drug testing is that it just doesn’t sit comfortably with modern office culture and is an unnecessary distraction for the majority of innocent employees. It harks back to the bad old days where workplaces were governed by fear rather than embracing the modern cultural trends for trust, openness, supportive and relaxed leadership. It feels like a step in the wrong direction. Turning up at work high is clearly unacceptable but could this situation be more effectively handled through effective management at an individual level rather than through blanket testing? Would testing actually be required at all if managers were better trained to spot the symptoms of substance abuse? And should we be focussing on helping our employees to find help, support and counselling in the first instance rather than taking immediate harsh disciplinary action? If only there was a scientific test to give us answers to these questions.