Why Drug Testing Is A Bad Idea

Advertisement

The call keeps going out for mandatory drug testing of people in jobs ranging from truck driver to basketball player to investment banker. And nowhere is the call heard more often than in industries whose products or services affect the public's safety. My business, Drexelbrook Engineering Co., is one such company.

For 25 years we have designed and manufactured electronic systems that measure and control the levels of hazardous chemicals, and our equipment is installed in plants all over the world. If it doesn't work properly, toxic-chemical tanks can overflow -- and people did. The tragedy in Bhopal, India, is an example of what can happen when this type of equipment malfunctions. A single Drexelbrook employee working under the influence of drugs could cause such a disaster.

But we don't do drug testing, and we're not going to. When our top management considered the idea, we concluded that drug testing was not in the best interests of the company, would not make the products any safer, and would actually hurt our performance and profits.

To our way of thinking, drug testing is not a serious workplace safety program. A sound program for dealing with the hazards posed by impaired workers would confront the most serious problem -- alcohol abuse. Yet no one proposes that all employees be subjected to breathalyzer tests to keep their jobs.

Drug testing also suffers from accruacy problems. The most common type of testing, immunoassay, has been shown to have false positive results: "clean" samples are mistakenly labeled as "dirty" 20% to 30% of the time. While more accruate and more expensive tests are available, they don't solve the problem either. It's difficult to pin down estimates of the number of drug-impaired workers in an average company, but 5% is a generally accepted figure. Say you have 100 employees, and 5 are drug abusers. Even with a test that's 99% accurate, 6 people could be fired for drug abuse, one of whom is innocent. A serious program cannot afford to be wrong that often, especially when someone's job is at stake.

But the fundamental flaw with drug testing is that it tests for the wrong thing. A realistic program to detect workers whose condition puts the company or other people at risk would test for the condition that actually creates the danger. The reason drunk or stoned airline pilots and truck drivers are dangerous is their reflexes, coordination, and timing are deficient. This impairment could come from many situations -- drugs, alcohol, emotional problems -- the list is almost endless. A serious program would recognize that the real problem is workers' impairment, and test for that. Pilots can be tested in flight simulators. People in other jobs can be tested by a trained technician in about 20 minutes -- at the job site.

Instead of testing for what really matters -- impairment -- drug testing looks for the presence of drug metabolites in the employee's urine, which remain in the body for up to two months. So an employee who fails a drug test may not be impaired at all. Firing good, sober employees for something they might have done last Saturday night does not increase safety.

Drug testing may even decrease safety. Any experienced manager knows that a safe quality product and a safe work environment do not come from a demoralized, unhappy work force. But this is exactly what drug testing produces.

To begin with, it's an act of distrust on the part of management. It requires the vast majority of employees to prove their innocence when there's no reason to suspect they've done anything wrong. It also violates their rights by reaching out from the employer's legitimate sphere of control at the workplace and telling employees what they can and can't do on their own time in their own homes.

Beyond this, experience has shown that the only way to prevent cheating on the tests is to make employees strip from the waist down and have someone watch at close range while they urinate into bottles. Drug-abusing employees who are not watched can substitute clean urine samples for their own, conceal small catheters of urine on their bodies, and dilute urine with tap water (to reduce drug concentration to below the cutoff point). The ultimate dodge, which no one knows how to prevent, is to slip a small amount of soap or salt into the sample. As Dr. William F. Hushion, medical director of Philadelphia Electric Co., put it after years of testing experience, "Any drug-testing program that doesn't include close observation is a joke."

The effect of all this on employee morale is obvious. How would you feel about being subjected to a strip search to prove your innocence -- even at home -- and being fired if you objected? Would you want your life resting on the performance of an employee who felt that way?

The failure of drug testing can be seen in its rejection by those whose profession is helping addicted workers. I have spoken at numerous conferences on drug testing, and a representative from an employee-assistance program is always included among the speakers. These people have been helping employees with substanceabuse problems for years -- and have done so very effectively. And many of them actively oppose testing. Some go so far as to refuse to accept referrals from testing programs. What kind of program is drug testing when it is opposed by those whose profession is helping abusing employees?

At this point, you may be saying, "I didn't realize there were all these problems with drug testing, but we have to do something." That's right, you do have to do something. Our company doesn't tolerate drug abuse, and I'm certainly not advocating that others tolerate it, either. Let me tell you about our program to combat workplace drug abuse.

We practice good management. We always say that people are our most important asset, and at Drexelbrook, we try to put that idea into practice.

We begin by trying to create a positive atmosphere. We want every employee to give us 100% every day. And we want each of them to make every decision with the best interests of the company at heart. By and large, we get that. But that kind of commitment doesn't come easily. We have to earn it.

One way we earn it is by treating our employees as adults. We trust them to do their jobs right and don't subject them to a lot of unnecessary rules. We trust our employees to know what working hours and style of dress are required for them to get their jobs done. Another way we earn that commitment is by respecting their rights. We scrupulously avoid prying into our employees' private lives. Finally, we care about them.

When they have problems at work or outside the workplace, we try to help. Sometimes we help by having our financial people arrange a personal loan at our bank. Sometimes we help by having our legal department straighten out a problem with an employee's landlord. Mostly we help just by listening and caring.

This approach to employee relations is not philanthropy -- it's good business. Our employees routinely go above and beyond the call of duty to help our customers. Our service manager, for example, installed a ship-to-shore radio in his sailboat at his own expense, so he could keep in touch with the company -- and any problems -- while he was on his vacation.

We are also very selective in our hiring. Even with applicants for entry-level jobs, we conduct at least two in-depth interviews with different interviewers. We check references -- thoroughly. And often not with the personnel department -- all they ever give us is name, rank, and serial number -- but with the candidate's previous supervisors. And we try to screen out the drug abusers. Not by anyone telling us directly, of course, but by learning about which applicants had chronic absenteeism, inconsistent quality, and bad work habits at their former jobs. And we find out with much more accuracy than we could with a hit-or-miss drug test.

After we hire people, we tell them what performance we expect from them -- and then pay attention to their results. Most of our supervisors have taken a 36-week, intensive management-training course to help them in this. If an employee's performance consistently falls short of our expectations, then the supervisor sits down with him or her and discusses the problem. When employees are open with supervisors -- as is often the case -- and the problem is drugs or alcohol, we help get them into a treatment program.

That's our program -- and it works. By doing good interviewing and reference checking, we almost never hire an employee with a drug or alcohol problem. We have had employees who developed such problems, but our supervisors noticed their declining job performance, confronted them, and got them into treatment.

Overall, I estimate the rate of abuse at our company to be only about 1%. We have installed more than a quarter of a million systems around the world, handling some of the most hazardous materials known, and have never been involved in an industrial accident.

Our experience is confirmed by a recent American Management Association survey of 1,000 companies that found the most effective program to fight workplace drug abuse combines employee education with trained supervisors who know how to identify and constructively confront employees who fail to meet performance standards.

The fact is, most companies don't to drug testing. And, according to the American Management Association study, a third of those who do think there is no value in it.

Why, then, is there so much talk about drug testing? The answer, I believe, lies largely in politics and the power of the media. Despite the fact that workplace drug abuse is far less prevalent than alcohol abuse -- which industry has survived, if not solved, for years -- the media have portrayed it as an epidemic that is sweeping the country and will destroy our economy unless immediate emergency measures are taken. In this emotional climate, is it any wonder that a manager who is already beleaguered, as we all are, can be convinced by a good salesperson who promises instant solutions with a simple, inexpensive test?

The truth, of course, is that managing people is never easy. Experienced managers for years have recognized that handling people is the most challenging part of their jobs, and that there are no shortcuts. And this, ultimately, is what drug testing is -- a seductive gimmick that prmises instant relief from the awesome responsibilities of management. The testing itself becomes a drug.

This is the choice managers face. They can fight workplace drug abuse with drug testing. It's easy, it's simple, and it's cheap. But it just doesn't work. Drug testing provides inaccurate and irrelevant information and alienates the vast majority of good employees, who resent being subjected to a strip search to keep their jobs. Or, they can fight substance abuse by choosing their people carefully, watching their performance, and getting involved when performance starts to slip. It's difficult, it's time-consuming, and it's expensive. But it does work. And not just in preventing workplace drug abuse, but in creating a safe and productive workplace.

Last updated: Jun 1, 1987




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: