Employee drug and alcohol abuse can cost your company in many ways, including increased absences, workplace accidents and high health costs. In addition, studies show that drug users are five times more likely than other employees to file a worker's compensation claim.

To protect themselves, many companies now routinely administer drug and alcohol tests to job applicants and employees. If your firm is not among them, the Department of Labor (DOL) warns that you may become an "employer of choice" for drug abusers who are unable to get — or keep — a job with employers that do drug testing. In other words, applicants who use drugs avoid companies that routinely give tests.

Large U.S. corporations are more likely than smaller and medium-size firms to have well-established and formal drug testing programs, according to the DOL.

To show how testing can help your firm avoid hiring a problem employee, consider the results of another study done by the U.S. Postal Service. Employees who tested positive in a pre-employment drug test were 66% more likely to be absent from work and 77% more likely to be discharged within three years than those who tested negative.

Caution: Despite the advantages of drug and alcohol testing, make sure you have sound legal advice before you get involved in any program. Mishandling the issue can result in costly and time-consuming litigation. Take care not to violate employees' rights. Federal and state laws must be followed and test results must be kept confidential.

For some companies, testing is mandatory. Federal law requires employers to drug test employees in the transportation industry, for example. If your firm has a government contract, testing may be required and some of your customers may ask for a guarantee that your employees are drug-free.

With the help of a legal advisor, it's a good idea to put any policy in writing in your employee handbook, employment contracts, job applications and other documents.

Decisions to Make

  • When will the testing take place — before hiring, randomly or when an employee is under probable suspicion? (In general, job applicants have fewer legal rights than current employees.)
  • What type of test will you use?
  • What are the consequences of a positive test?

Before going forward with any substance abuse policy or testing, make sure it is legally defensible by getting expert advice. For more information from the U.S. Department of Labor, go to http://www.dol.gov/elaws