Do Employers Really Need to Test New Hires for Drugs?

And if so, why not test for alcohol?

Scott Ehrisman watches Sioux Falls banker Dana Dykhouse bemoan the rising rate (now 25%) at which job applicants fail First Premier Bank’s drug test and suggests that Dykhouse could attract a better class of applicants by paying better wages.

I suggest that Dykhouse could overcome his problem by forgoing probes of prospective employees’ private lives and fluids and focusing instead on visible, practical signs of inability to perform the job. If an applicant’s speech is slurred or erratic, if the applicant appears tired or agitated to the point of distraction, if the applicant can’t answer questions logically or type up a letter or spreadsheet without mistakes, don’t hire the applicant. If the applicant can stride confidently into the interview, shake the boss’s hand, pay attention, and pass practical tests—like teaching applicants delivering a practice algebra lesson—then what does it matter to the employer if the employee vacations in Denver and ingests some herbal remedies?

If employees’ private, off-clock behavior does matter enough to justify bosses’ demanding cups of their urine, then why don’t bosses also test for alcohol and ban employees who drink? A 2006 study found that 15% of workers reported drinking alcohol before coming to work, drank at work, or were under the influence or hungover at work at least once during the year; only 3% engaged in similar behavior with illegal drugs. Alcohol is involved in 40% of motor vehicle fatalities and pedestrian deaths.  Alcohol is responsible for about half of trauma deaths and nonfatal injuries. Alcohol costs the U.S. economy $249 billion a year, while illegal drugs nick $193 billion. (Tobacco racks up $300 billion in economic costs, so shall we test for smoking, too?)

Alcohol abuse is more widespread and damaging than use of marijuana and other drugs, yet First Premier Bank isn’t breaking out the breathalyzers. CEO Dykhouse can have an adult beverage or two in the luxury suite at his SDSU stadium, and as long as he can walk into the office unaided on Monday and add $2 million and $2 million to get a $4-million tax break, no one will question his fitness for work, let alone demand a whiff of his pee.

Alcohol and drug use affect job performance. So do any number of other behaviors and private issues about which employers have no business asking. If applicants can provide solid résumés and straight answers, hire ’em. If they can consistently perform the work, keep ’em. If they come in late or miss too many days or make too many mistakes, fire ’em. Good managers don’t need cups of pee to build and maintain a good workforce.


30 Responses to Do Employers Really Need to Test New Hires for Drugs?

  1. Yeah, if a truck driver or a pilot wants a little crank to stay awake so be it. And if a police officer wants a little pot to calm his trigger finger – why not? And if a machine operator likes a bit of heroin I’m sure nothing bad will happen. They ought to all be able to smoke on the job too as long as they show up and do the work. And anyone who looks at child porn on their own time should be able to remain fire chief just so long as they get to the fires.

  2. Darin Larson

    Cory, let me try to understand your position here. You want employers to hire people that use drugs, spend time and resources training them, and then sort out the problem drug users and fire them based upon job performance, but keep the drug users who do a good job? If so, you have truly “jumped the shark.”

    There are numerous reasons why your position is untenable. There are the obvious reasons like employers don’t want to devote resources to training people that won’t be employed there in a month or two. They also don’t want the work place to be disrupted by people who don’t show up for work or are erratic or volatile. There is also a concern that employers could be held liable for the actions of their employees since it is foreseeable that drug using employees will cause harm to others.

  3. Meanwhile, alcohol use is not only accepted in society, it is glorified.

  4. Seriously? I think a far more reasonable approach, particularly for safety-related positions, would be to maintain screening for hiring after other due diligence steps, and using reasonable suspicion criteria to initiate subsequent screening for any problem behaviors. Additionally, random screening might well be justified in certain job categories.

  5. This practice needs to go away. Drug users are often quite adept at hiding their use and have numerous ways to defeat the tests anyway. The seriously harmful and dangerous drugs disappear from detection in 24 hours. A tweaker need refrain for a mere day to get a clean test, while a pot smoker is on the hook for a month.

    An aspect that bothers me, is the fact the the tests are not 100% accurate. That means that at some point someone is getting fired, or not hired due to mistake. At one local I was hired at an expressed this concern, I was told I should pay for my own independent test at the same time to completely avoid mistakes.

    It just doesn’t seem American to submit body fluids to your employer to prove your innocence. Why can’t they assume I’m innocent until I give them reason to believe otherwise. Big Brother run amok.

  6. Cory knocks it out of the park again. Well said. The people who comment on here, or anywhere else for that matter, and say that drugs are some big problem in this country are just eating too much of what the media feeds them. Sure, some people who are on drugs do bad things. But some people who aren’t on drugs do bad things, too. Some people are just bad people. It isn’t the “drug” – that is a scapegoat offered up by the people who think that because they don’t enjoy something, nobody else should be able to.

    Most…and yes, I really do mean most…of our neighbors, friends, relatives, and coworkers take some kind of drug for recreation. Whether it’s marijuana, prescriptions that aren’t quite necessary, or something else – there are many many many happy, safe, and sane users out there. Everywhere.

    I have a dream. One day men and women will be judged not by the composition of their pee, but by the consequences of their actions.

  7. CH,

    Ask anyone in HR and supervision and they will tell you two things:

    1) Almost everyone is really good at detecting alcohol use without a test while not so experienced/competant in detecting drug use by observation.
    2) Not being proactive and preventative prior to a workplace injury is a good way to both have work comp rates go up and get fined by OSHA.

  8. Donald Pay

    I look at this issue more rationally. If there is a safety issue involved, drug testing should be done. Or if a person has substantial responsibilities for the safety and well-being of others. For example, truck drivers or bus drivers, pilots, nurses and other caring professions probably should be randomly tested. With respect to 90 percent of the positions in a bank, there is no need. Dykhouse, however, is at a level where his decisions affect the financial stability of his institution and the financial well-being of many people. He should be randomly tested for drugs. In general, top-level managers at banks and corporations, legislators, governors and department heads should be drug tested, because their decisions affect all of us. But a retail clerk or a teller or a dishwasher? A waste of money. If they come to work stoned or drunk, discipline them once, then fire them if the behavior continues.

    I’m anti-drug, but the best anti-drug measure is a full-time , or even a part-time, job that makes people realize they are valued. You’ve got to give people, especially young people in entry-level jobs, a chance to figure that out.

    Class or race has relatively little to do with rates of drug use. Being rich just seems to change the drug of choice, not the usage rate.

  9. Hold on, Ror. I’m not saying let there be no punishment for criminals. I am asking whether employers should be playing cop on and invading privacy on any issue. If we accept that police role for employers, then can we justify their exercise of that role on one particular issue when they don’t exercise it on others, like alcohol abuse, that pose greater threat to the workplace.

  10. Darin, I’m not saying, “Hire drug users.” You know I have minimal tolerance for drug or alcohol use.

    I’m asking just how much privacy people have to give up to get a job.

    Suppose we take the child porn issue Ror mentions. Sure, I don’t want a child porn addict working in my office and potentially subjecting my company to liability by downloading illegal images on my company computers. But I would not suggest that my concern about child porn justifies my asking job applicants to give me the passwords to their e-mail and social media accounts. If there is some outward sign that the applicant is engaged in bad behavior—like a pornographic image visible on his phone during the interview, or an arrest warrant for child porn issued while I’m reviewing his application (innocent until proven guilty?)—then sure, I tell the applicant, “Get out of here.”

    And if alcohol does more damage than drugs, why aren’t drug-testing employers also breath-testing applicants?

  11. One more thing:

    Federal Banking law prohibits any convicted felon (includes things like felony DUI, etc.) or misdemeanor which involves matters of trust from working at a bank in virtually any position. Further, they have to take all reasonable background/pre-screening steps to insure they are not hiring people who may be of risk of committing a felony or misdemeanor which involves a matter of trust.

    Thus, in addition to doing criminal background tests, it is standard industry practice to preemptively investigate if they are committing crimes. So, at minimum, so long as drug use is a crime for which termination is likely required under federal banking law, they will perform such tests.

  12. Are you sure that the drug test are done just because? I bet the underwriter of an insurance company is the reason behind a test.

  13. troy – do you know if bankers or others in the financial sector are subject to random tests after they’re hired?

  14. Mark,

    I don’t know if it is required by law but the bank’s I’m familiar with have both random plus required upon reasonable suspicion.

    Don’t know if it is true but I’ve heard that banks require the employees of their cleaning companies to background check the employees who clean up offices after hours.

  15. Troy — that sounds like a sound business practice. I worked a number of years in a position subject to random, periodic, and reasonable suspicion testing. I think everyone involved thought it was in the public interest due to the nature of our jobs. I never heard of a false positive, but there were collectively-bargained safeguards to deal with that. I do recall, however, someone who was about to be referred for a “reasonable suspicion” screen, had their situation re-evaluated by an alert co-worker to inform management that an employee was having an acute hypoglycemic event and not a substance abuse problem. A reasonable drug-testing program, incorporating appropriate measures and protections, can serve everyone – employees and employers alike, as well as the public at large.

  16. The fourth amendment is clearly stated. No citizen can be required to give up any part of his/her person or property without showing probable cause and a warrant. Unless you actively observe me breaking a law or unless you have a clear and demonstrable reason to believe I may be about to harm myself or another citizen, you may not assume for yourself the authority to stop me as I go about my business or violate my rights by requiring that I prove to you that I am not breaking the law. That applies to law enforcement personnel as well as private citizens and corporate managers. Argue the point back and forth all you wish but this is our constitution.

  17. I agree with the ideology behind your comment, JonD, but your interpretation of the protections of the constitution is incorrect.

    The constitution doesn’t protect you from volunteering your urine to get a job. If you don’t want to pee in a cup to get a job, you don’t have to. Granted, you don’t get the job, but nobody is making you pee.

  18. …well yes, for trump (sniffs his nose at debate w HRC). erratic behavior in office confirms trump is mentally unstable, according to mental health experts coming out.

    Distractor in chief, squirming like a worm on a hook: “where’s that goddamn red button? where’s Alleppo? You’re FIRED! let’s go for dinner”

  19. In healthcare, employees are also pretty good at detecting drug use also.

  20. So, Ryan, what you’re trying to say here is that I need to think things through a bit farther before I spout off? Is that it? Well…..aaahh…..crap. I guess I’ll just do that, then.

  21. No, I’m actually a big fan of un-thought-out spouting. But this is the internet, if you can’t correct a total stranger occasionally, what’s the point?

  22. Test them all for drugs! Have you not seen waiters and people at drive through window serving institutions and 7-11s where half of their teeth are all rotted out from the toking of demon weed?

    They should test everybody who applies for a drivers license too, and people who want to get passports and who sign up to be public notaries.

  23. It seems unlikely that Mr. Trump is toking the demon weed, but he should be tested. I fear his is more likely insaner than most, probably most all save Ms. Hubbel and that pretty young Dr. Boz.

  24. barry freed

    I’ll pee in your cup, when Grudz is there to lap it up

  25. barry freed

    Reagan brought us drug testing after four sailors were killed by a drunk pilot on the deck of the Nimitz.
    The pilot, doing a night landing, tested at 2.4 BAC, the sailors were enjoying a starry night at sea.

    Reaganistas love drug testing.

  26. I enjoy seeing Ryan’s and JonD’s comments side by side. JonD is right—the 4th Amendment rocks—but the Constitution doesn’t apply in full in the workplace. (Funny how we patriotic Americans allow capitalism to overrule democracy.) We can agree to do things with private parties that the state absolutely should not and cannot do to us.

    But suppose the situation arises that every employer in town requires applicants to pee in a cup to get a job. The only choice left for workers is to sacrifice privacy or remain unemployed. Is there a “right to work” that would override employers’ desire to sniff our pee?

    What if, instead of a drug test, employers could read our minds, extract complete thoughts and memories from our brains, to determine whether we are not just clean and sober but committed to values and business interests? I know it’s sci-fi, but imagine it, use the thought experiment as a way to test our values. What can employers demand of workers?

  27. Obviously Cory’s question is hypothetical, but I think the chance of “every” employer testing their applicants is slimmer than Trump’s chances of still being President in 2018. First, a lot of employers either use drugs or don’t care about that – they care about actual job performance.

    Second, if every employer did it, it would take about ten minutes to run out of clean applicants and these business owners would have to run the whole thing themselves. It would be a supply-and-demand issue for clean pee. It would probably be sold on the black market. I mean, that already happens, but it would happen a lot more.

  28. Miranda Gohn

    An employer has the right if they so choose to test their employees for drugs. It depends on the type of work they do, the culture within that industry and there is the factor of liability aside from what expectations that employer has. They set the conditions of employment.

  29. “Employers set the conditions of employment.” True, but only to a certain extent. We forbid employers from setting certain objectionable conditions: e.g., can’t demand sexual favors, can’t pay less than minimum wage, can’t demand overtime without extra pay. There is some boundary to conditions employers can set. I’m wondering if invasions of bodily privacy should be placed on the other side of that line… and if they aren’t then why we don’t see equivalent invasions of personal privacy to determine alcohol use.

  30. Ryan, I’m not convinced universal drug testing is that unlikely. Look how it has grown over recent years. If, as Michael B mentioned above, a lot of drug testing is driven by liability insurance demands, then I could easily see every reputable business deciding it has to test every applicant in order to keep insurance premiums down.

    What happens if workers face universal drug testing without probably cause? Is that acceptable, or could we argue that the right to work takes precedence over employers’ desire for warrantless searches?