Drug dilemma

In the old days, anyone suspected of abusing illegal drugs on the job would have been fired on the spot. In today’s litigious times, things aren’t so simple.

Do you have a policy against illegal drugs? “Without a policy, an employer doesn’t have any guidelines that are communicated to the employee,” says Paul Mastrangelo, assistant professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of Baltimore. “If the employee is terminated, and there’s no policy, the employee can say they were never told they could be terminated for drug use.”

While it may seem obvious that something illegal would be automatic grounds for dismissal, without a policy specifically stating that fact, the termination may not stand up, especially if it is a union shop.

If there is a specific incident that is causing you to develop a policy, make sure it is communicated to the employees, even in draft form, before following through with any action.

Forget about the drug use, focus on the related job performance issues. Firing someone for alleged drug abuse can be a legal nightmare. What proof do you have they were using? Were there witnesses? Many of the symptoms associated with drug or alcohol abuse are also symptoms of colds and flu. Without some sort of testing, there’s no way to know whether the employee took two hits of speed with a whiskey chaser or two cold capsules and some cough syrup.

If you have a drug testing program, you have the evidence-gathering mechanism you need to prove that person was using drugs on the job. If you don’t have drug testing, start documenting all the related unacceptable behavior: absenteeism, tardiness, poor productivity, leaving early, etc. Talk to the employee about these work-specific issues without bringing up the suspicion of drug use. Put the employee on notice that continued behavior of this type will result in termination.

If action is taken, make it because of the job performance issues.

Mastrangelo says there are three “don’ts” when it comes to addressing this problem:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions. The employee’s performance could be caused by cold, flu or other illness.
  • Don’t enable poor performance by covering for the employee. “If an employee has a drug or alcohol problem, covering up for them is the worst thing you can do,” says Mastrangelo. “Even if they are a friend or valued worker. You are enabling the problem and hurting their chances of ever taking action.”
  • Don’t ignore poor job performance. How to reach: Paul Mastrangelo, www.home.ubalt.edu/pmastrangelo or (410) 837-5352

Warning signs

Does someone who works for you have a drug or alcohol problem? Here are possible warning signs:

  • Quality and quantity of work decreases.
  • Morale problems exist.
  • Absenteeism increases.
  • Conflicts with other employees arise.
  • Accident rate increases.
  • Equipment is stolen.

One way to help prevent problems is to provide employees with not only work skills training, but life skills training. Teach conflict resolution and relaxation skills, allowing them to deal with two problems that correlate to drug abuse.