6 Signs of Employee Drug Use

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Most employers want to respect the privacy of their employees, yet they also need to ensure a safe and productive work environment. Navigating those two important principles can become challenging when there is reason to believe an employee is using drugs. It is important to exercise caution and adhere to regulations regarding employee protections. On the other hand, employee drug abuse is both dangerous and expensive, costing businesses an estimated $81 billion annually and often playing a role in on-the-job injuries and even deaths.

Whether your organization already conducts periodic employment drug screens or not, it’s best to know what the common signs of employee drug abuse are. If you see signs of drug abuse, document what you observe as factually as possible.

How can I tell if an employee is using drugs?

While the only way to know for certain is to obtain a confirmed positive result on a drug test, here are six common signs that could mean an employee is using drugs.

  • Missing Work or Coming in Late
  • Accidents On or Off the Job
  • Decreased Productivity at Work
  • Behavioral Changes or Erratic Behavior
  • Changes in Appearance or Speech
  • Impaired Awareness or Poor Judgement

What to Do if You Suspect Employee Drug Abuse

  1. First of all, if the employee holds a safety-sensitive position and you have reason to believe he or she may currently be impaired, take immediate action. You can remove them from duty and conduct a “For-Cause” drug screen if an employee shows discernible signs of being unfit for duty. This is the best course of action when the health and safety of both the employee and others are involved.
  2. If the situation doesn’t require immediate action, but you suspect drug abuse, document your observations in an objective and factual way. Your workplace sleuthing doesn’t necessarily require you to make accusations right off the bat. Gather information from first-hand sources only, avoiding hearsay or gossip. If an employee shows a pattern of unsafe behavior at work, you can conduct a “Reasonable Suspicion” drug test.

If your organization already has a workplace drug testing program in place, review your policies before you confront or take disciplinary action against an employee for suspected drug use. The laws outlining legal next steps vary from state to state, so you’ll want to make sure you act in accordance with your state’s laws.

The Americans with Disabilities Acts protects individuals with alcohol dependency and those who develop an addiction to legally prescribed medications. It does not offer protection to a current user of illegal drugs, but it does cover a person in recovery who has already quit using them.

Federal contractors and safety-sensitive positions within the Department of Transportation (DOT) are required to establish a Drug-Free Workplace according to federal guidelines, and are mandated to carry out routine workplace drug screening.

An employer is permitted to conduct drug tests in five situations.

  1. Pre-employment
  2. As part of an Annual Physical
  3. For-Cause and Reasonable Suspicion
  4. Post Accident
  5. Post Treatment after rehabilitation

Urine testing has been the standard method of workplace screening for some time, but mouth-swab drug tests are becoming increasingly popular. They are easier to perform in a work environment, and saliva tests indicate past drug use within a shorter detection time window, generally between 1 hour and 3 days. This gives a better indication of what substances an individual has used more recently, which is more likely to directly affect performance at work due to impairment or withdrawals.

However your drug screening policy is structured, clearly communicate your expectations and policies to your employees before you hire them and whenever you implement a change. Your ultimate goal is not to catch someone doing something they shouldn't, but to foster a productive, drug-free workplace from day one.


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