Drug Use and Hiring Decisions: Clamp Down or Chill Out?

Your applicant has wowed you with an impressive resume. His references have been nothing short of amazing. He's been absolutely charming in every interview, and he's done well on the skillset tests in your HR software. This person really seems like your ideal candidate. Drug testing in the workplace didn’t really start to catch on until the 1980s, but it's common now. An estimated 98% of Fortune 500 companies have a human resources program that mandates some form of drug testing.

Get Lost, Loser

When it comes to hiring decisions, many pros say, you'd be out of your mind to hire a user. HR departments have good, practical reasons for thinking this way. Here's why they're into drug testing:

  • Testing can save you money. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, drug-related incidents cost employers an astounding $75 to $100 billion every year, a figure that includes lost time, healthcare and payouts for work-related accidents. But consider this: adding a drug-screening test to your human resources program will set you back $50 per test at the most, and it can prevent you from racking up any drug-related expenses in the future.
  • Testing can help you find an employee who’s in it for the long haul. A 2007 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that substance abusers can switch jobs as often as three times per year. If you can find out definitively whether an employee uses drugs – before making hiring decisions – you'll save yourself both time and money. That's because you won’t be constantly searching for new candidates.

Come as You Are

Some companies these days, believe it or not, see drug testing as an antiquated practice. Societal attitudes about marijuana may be changing (as evidenced by recent ballot initiatives across the U.S.), but the testing process itself may introduce undesired noise to the hiring process. Here's some food for thought on that:

  • Carl Sagan smoked weed. If a candidate’s resume is stellar, if her references check out and if she seems personable and capable in interviews, should recreational use even be an issue? Opponents of mandatory pre-employment drug testing say no. After all, when a scientist smokes a joint, the indirect result is sometimes a handful of bestselling books, an award-winning television show and the discovery of hidden oceans on the moons of gas giants.
  • Drug tests can be inaccurate. Did you know that eating a poppy seed bagel can actually skew the results of a drug test? It sounds like an urban legend, but it’s actually legit. Those teeny, tiny little seeds that perpetually and infuriatingly get stuck in your teeth can cause morphine and codeine to show up in your urine for up to 48 hours. Of course, you'd have to eat a lot of bagels to actually fail a drug test. Opponents seldom admit that.
  • If drugs are a safety issue, what does a positive result teach us? Drug testing is important for safety reasons – nobody wants to be responsible for the actions of a stoned employee, and you're simply not allowed to be drunk at work. But if a drug test can produce a positive result a day or so after the effects have worn off – and some do – then what exactly do the tests have to say about workplace safety issues? That depends on many things. “Better safe than sorry,” testing proponents say. “Gimme a break,” says the dude in the hack circle. Some folks say that it's a judgment call, and that it depends on the industry.

As our ideas about drugs evolve as a society, our thoughts on what's sensible when it comes to hiring decisions may, to some degree, change. What are your thoughts on the subject? Is drug testing a must, in every circumstance and for every job? Let us know what you think in the comment section.

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