Shawn Smith

Article Summary:

How to deal with drug abuse in the workplace.

Drug Abuse In the Workplace

The issue of drug abuse in the workplace is an unpleasant one to face. Some employers will deny that the problem exists at their organizations; others feel sure that they would be able to recognize the problem in employees when and if it occurred. However, no business is immune from the potential problems of substance abuse. According to Working Partners for an Alcohol and Drug Free Workplace (Working Partners), an estimated 6.5 percent of full-time workers and 8.6 percent of part-time workers are illicit drug users. And when these workers arrive at your business, they bring their problems in with them as well.

Although smaller businesses may believe that they are less likely to bear the consequences of employee drug problems, studies show quite the opposite. Working Partners cites statistics indicating that 44% of illicit drug users work in companies with less than 25 employees, and 43% work for employers with under 500 workers. Substance abusers tend to gravitate toward employers that do not have strict policies prohibiting substance abuse, or that do not have testing programs in place.

When you suspect an employee of drug abuse, it is important to handle the situation in a sensitive and legally compliant manner.

Avoid Accusations.
Many of the symptoms of substance abuse can in fact be caused by other factors, such as lack of sleep, stress, or prescription medications. Never assume that a job performance or behavior problem is the result of drug use; it is not your job to make a professional diagnosis. Even if you are reasonably sure that employees are abusing illicit substances, do not confront them with these accusations. Focus on the particular performance problems that the condition is causing.

Document behaviors.
Before any conversations with the employee, document the facts. To avoid future defamation claims, focus only on observed behaviors, not conclusions. Instead of saying, "Mary came to work high on drugs," your report might say, "Mary arrived 30 minutes late for work on Wednesday. Her eyes were bloodshot, her speech was slurred, and she went to her desk and fell asleep."

Meet with the Employee.
This meeting should include the employee, the manager and a third party to witness the conversation, preferably another manager or member of Human Resources. Discuss your observations, explaining the company's performance policy and the consequences of not bringing performance up to an acceptable level. While you should not bring up the subject of substance abuse, it is acceptable and desirable to ask if anything is wrong.

If the employee denies any problems, weigh the situation and determine whether to take disciplinary action based upon the performance issues involved and your organization's disciplinary policy. If you believe any employees to be "unfit for duty," send them home (but do not let them drive).

Sometimes the employee will admit to a drug problem during the course of the conversation. While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against rehabilitated drug addicts, current drug users are not protected by this law. You are legally permitted to fire an employee for illegal drug use on the job, but this is not always the best alternative. Depending upon the situation and your company policies, it may be advisable from a business and/or employee relations standpoint to offer help, and to require that the employee seek help as a condition of continued employment.

Provide assistance.
As managers are not trained drug treatment counselors, do not get personally involved with an employee's drug problems. The best way to help your workers overcome their substance abuse issues is to provide appropriate employee referrals.

If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), inform the individual how to receive confidential assistance through this system. If you do not have an EAP, it is helpful to compile a file of local resources to which employees can turn. When you offer assistance or referrals to employees, along with the chance to work through their problems, make it clear that continued employment will be contingent upon their successful rehabilitation and satisfactory work performance.

Shawn Smith is a consultant, speaker, attorney and the founder of Next Level Consulting, LLC, an organizational development and management consulting firm. She has worked with a broad range of public, private and non-profit organizations to develop practical programs and strategies to navigate change, increase individual and organizational effectiveness and exceed business objectives. Shawn is the co-author of The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers and Human Resources Professionals (AMACOM 2004). Contact her for more information through her web site at

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