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Buzzkill: How to Talk to Your Employees About Drug Use

Updated Apr 07, 2023

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Drug abuse can be a tricky subject to navigate in the workplace, and the way employers handle the topic can make the environment either better or worse. Though substance abuse is a sensitive, and sometimes controversial, subject, you need to address it due to the effects it can have on employees, management and your company as a whole.

Employers should exercise caution when handling substance abuse cases and approach affected employees with evidence rather than speculation. Substance abuse policies can help employers understand their roles and responsibilities and ensure employees are clear on the steps that will be taken if substance abuse is suspected in the workplace. As long as you follow best practices, the topic of drug use doesn’t have to be a buzzkill.

Creating a substance abuse policy

The first part of discussing drug use with employees is creating a substance abuse policy. Substance abuse policies are official company documents that outline how an organization will address issues related to drug and alcohol abuse, as well as prescribed medications, in the workplace. Though some employers may think a formal substance abuse policy is unnecessary, sometimes these policies are legally required. 

To maintain a safe working environment and healthy company culture for everyone, you should create a substance abuse policy that explains what your organization does to ensure the workplace remains drug- and alcohol-free. Substance abuse policies protect both employees and employers and advocate for a safe and high-quality work environment.

FYIDid you know

A substance abuse policy can cover both drugs and alcohol, or you can create a separate alcohol policy and drug policy.

A well-rounded substance abuse policy has several components. The introduction should define substance abuse to eliminate confusion and loopholes; as with any business policy, clarity is key. Additionally, the introduction should explain how substance abuse affects employees, their work, the workplace and the company. The introduction should also include a purpose statement that explains why the policy has been implemented and what the document covers.

The next section of the document should outline who the policy applies to (e.g., full-time employees, interns, etc.), followed by the specific rules the employees must abide by. The goal is to make indisputably clear the expectations for how employees are expected to act and what they should or should not be doing in regard to drugs, alcohol and medication when on the job. In addition, there should be a section that discusses what types of drug testing might be required for employees and under what circumstances. 

Did You Know?Did you know

A company could require drug testing before making a hire, after reasonable suspicion, or following an accident that occurred at work. That said, many employers today are debating whether or not businesses should still drug test for marijuana.

While there are other topics employers can add to their policies, the last essential section covers disciplinary action. The document should explain the consequences for any violation of the aforementioned rules, including and up to termination. This section can also address what employees should do if they suspect an employee is violating one of the stipulations or if they witness a violation. 

Companies may choose to include a compassion statement that promises less severe consequences if the offending employee agrees to cooperate. For example, a team member who voluntarily discloses an ongoing struggle with drugs could be offered rehabilitation assistance instead of dismissal. Regardless, seek advice from legal experts when forming your policy to ensure you’re following local and state laws and understand what is expected of you as an employer. 

Do’s and don’ts of talking to employees about drug abuse

Merely creating a substance abuse policy isn’t enough to prevent drug use from being a problem in the workplace. While the policy’s existence may be a deterrent for some people, you still need to convey what it entails. Even so, situations will arise that require you to talk to employees about drug abuse. Following the below do’s and don’ts can help guide your words and actions.

Do’s

  • Discuss your substance abuse policy during onboarding and beyond. Every new hire should be provided with a copy of the substance abuse policy to sign, but an HR leader should also take the time to discuss the matter during your company orientation. To ensure veteran employees don’t overlook the issue, broach the subject each year when your team tackles annual sexual harassment training and other legal matters.
  • Be empathetic. A struggle with drugs or alcohol does not make someone a bad person. Conversations about drug use should come from a place of compassion and respect. Keep in mind that even employees who don’t abuse drugs may still find the subject sensitive to discuss, perhaps because of a family member’s addiction. Do not stigmatize or belittle anyone affected by drug use.
  • Gather evidence before taking direct action. Never assume someone is guilty of using drugs in the workplace without gathering evidence from an array of sources. If someone reported an employee, talk with them and others confidentially to collect observations. Then have a conversation with the employee about what was reported and offer an opportunity for them to provide an explanation. 
  • Consult your company’s substance abuse policy. A substance abuse policy doesn’t do any good if you don’t actually use it. Refer back to your policy when deciding how to handle different situations and when talking about the issue with affected employees. 
  • Observe employee behavior and remove them from safety-sensitive work, if necessary. Excessive absences, changing moods and a sudden withdrawal from company socializing could indicate an employee struggles with drugs or other health issues. They may also fail to follow your business’s usual workplace safety standards or contribute to an incident. If there are clear signs a staffer currently poses a safety threat to themself or others, remove them from the situation immediately and calmly explain why you’ve taken action. 
  • Understand the laws regarding substance abuse and protection. Each state has different substance abuse laws regarding work policies, testing and consequences. Employer substance abuse policies are also subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. The ADA’s guidelines cover specific scenarios that involve employees developing addictions to legal medications, employees who have an alcohol dependency problem, and employees who have gone through rehabilitation for the use of alcohol or drugs. Grasping these legal intricacies can help you lead from a place of knowledge when talking about drug use with your team. 
  • Send employees for drug or alcohol testing when appropriate. If, according to the law and your company’s substance abuse policy, the proper action is to test an employee for drug or alcohol use, send them for testing right away and explain why you are obligated to do so. Be upfront about what the process will entail and the possible consequences so your worker isn’t blindsided as the situation continues to unfold.
TipBottom line

Formally document all observed employee behaviors and your reasoning for ordering drug or alcohol testing. This information can serve as proof that you’ve complied with company policies and applicable laws.

Don’ts

  • Speculate, judge or take action based on assumptions. Don’t assume an employee is abusing drugs or alcohol without evidence. When conversing with the employee about any suspicions, keep in mind this may be the first time they have considered their behavior as a problem, and the idea may be difficult for them to process. Practice non-judgment and compassion-based discussions. Consider any unconscious bias you may possess and actively try to keep it from interfering with how you handle the situation.
  • Order drug and alcohol testing without valid reasoning. If an employee has not violated any policies and has not been seen engaging in unsafe behaviors, it does not make sense to order drug and alcohol testing. The only reasons to conduct a drug test when there isn’t a suspected violation are for company-required new-hire testing or a requirement for ongoing testing for people in safety-related roles, such as truck drivers. Otherwise, you risk upsetting staffers if you force them to undergo testing without a valid reason. [Learn about the drug and alcohol testing involved with DOT background checks and the drug testing offered by the best background check companies.]
  • Expect a dramatic change right away. An employee who has an addiction is unlikely to completely cut off their drug use and switch behaviors after one conversation. An immediate cessation of certain drugs can result in withdrawal symptoms or other harmful physical and mental consequences. Understand that the process of talking with the employee and getting them help, if warranted, may take some time, and express a genuine willingness to support them on their journey.
  • Ignore the situation or dismiss unsafe behaviors. Any instance of suspected substance abuse should not be ignored in hopes that it will resolve on its own. If you don’t address the issue with employees promptly, that gives them implicit permission to continue unsafe and unhealthy behaviors that affect them, their work, other employees and the company as a whole. While these situations may not lend themselves to immediate resolution, time is of the essence.
  • Share information about employees and their situation with uninvolved parties. All information, including conversations with the employee and any test results, should be kept confidential. However, there may be times when you need to talk to colleagues, health professionals or law enforcement. If that’s the case, ensure you are following any applicable laws, such as the HIPAA Privacy Rule. [Check out our HIPAA compliance checklist.]
  • Use your substance abuse policy as a weapon. Ensure the leaders responsible for enforcing your company’s substance abuse policy don’t use that power as a tool to hold over others or retaliate against specific employees. Make sure your staff understands you take conversations about drug use seriously because you want to make your business a better place to work — not to drive employees away.
  • Let your substance abuse policy lapse. Like your employee handbook and other essential HR documents, your substance abuse policy should be regularly audited and updated to account for workplace changes. For example, if your business switches to a work-from-home setup, your policy should be adjusted to account for any rules applying to at-home drug use. Convey any changes to employees in a timely manner.
Sean Peek
Contributing Writer at business.com
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.
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