Human Resources News & Insights

You suspect an employee is using drugs: What now?

You can’t prove it, but the signs are there. So how do you deal with suspected drug abuse without violating privacy rights or making false accusations?

Many would say, “Make it a performance issue. If he’s failing on the job, then tell him he has to shape up.”

OK, that’s good advice, but should you wait that long? If you suspect someone’s spaced out, there are costs – financial and social – associated with waiting.

Here are five ways to be more proactive about potential drug use problems, courtesy of Shepell fgi and Bob Rosner’s best-selling book “The Boss’s Survival Guide”:

1. Look for the signs.

Neither you nor your managers are likely experts at determining when an employee is using drugs. But there are certain signs you can look for that, when taken in tandem, can be more than just performance issues.

They include:

  • mood changes. Warning signs include employees being irritable, withdrawn, depressed or particularly energetic or talkative after breaks or lunch.
  • altered appearance. Staffers who previously were well-groomed who suddenly start showing up dressed inappropriately or not having showered should raise some suspicion. Other potential areas of concern: slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and excessive weight loss or gain.
  • diminishing returns on performance. If one of your employee’s performance starts tanking, you’d be concerned no matter what. But when taken with things like loss of concentration, misuse of equipment and frequent use of sick days, that concern should start to ebb toward suspicion.
  • problems with relationships. Be on the lookout for employees who are argumentative, uncooperative or accusative.

Clearly any of these problems, when taken alone, can be the result of any problem in an employee’s life. It’s when you start to notice a pattern of several of these that should lead you or your managers to question what’s going on.

2. Document, document, document

Noticing the signs of potential drug use is all well and good, but you’ll need to be able to point to specific instances when an employee’s behavior was just a little off in order to take any action or speak with him or her.

That’s why it’s crucial for managers to maintain specific records of employee performance.

Now, you know managers should already be doing that, and there’s no doubt you’ve trained your supervising team well. But here’s the kicker: Managers cannot include their suspicions in these write-ups.

The whole point of these write-ups is to use them when you eventually meet to discuss the issues with an employee. They must be objective in order to do that.

3. Get professional advice.

OK, so you know the signs of drug abuse now, you’ve filled your managers in on what they could be, and you’ve made sure your supervisors are documenting any and all performance issues (which they should be doing anyway).

Still, you’re not a pro at it. So contact a pro – a doctor or a drug counselor, for instance – just to be sure you’re seeing the real thing, or just something else that looks like the real thing.

And then explore with the pros the possible courses of action for treatment. What’s available? What has the best record of success?

At the very least, you want some professional opinions and backup before you go to the next steps.

4. Approach the person, but not as an enforcer.

You can, if you want, make threats about firing or other drastic measures to address the problem, but that probably won’t solve the problem. Instead, at least in the beginning, approach the person as a concerned colleague.

Explain that you’ve noticed a problem and have consulted professionals to confirm your suspicions. And then attack the problem from the angle that, first and foremost, you want to help the person.

5. Present the plan and do what you can to implement it.

You may or may not be working through an Employee Assistance Program, but whatever you do, lay out a plan for the person and your role in it – as a coach or just someone to talk to.

At that point, it’s up to the person to take action. You know how it goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but …”

If the person doesn’t respond properly and performance or on-the-job behavior becomes an issue, you can deal with that under policies and disciplinary rules. But you’ll know that you did your best to keep the problem from getting to that point.

Updated on March 1, 2013.

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  • Richard Loupee

    Sorry, but I disagree completely with this approach. Asking managers or HR to diagnose the cause of the employee’s issues will lead to more serious problems. Certain behaviors may be caused by drug use, but they also may be the result of a medical condition, either physical or mental. Simply put, neither the manager or the HR Representative is qualified to make such an assessment. While it is good to be able to get in front of these issues before they reach a critical point, the repercussions of a misdiagnosis are enormous. It is exactly this sort of issue that led to the development and implementation of Employee Assistance Programs, and exactly the reason why the employee’s involvement in such programs is completely confidential.

  • http://www.hrmorning.com Jim Giuliano

    Richard: Thanks for your comment.
    I believe the advice in the book does not ask the HR person to diagnose the problem. It just suggests that you can approach the employee and mention that there’s a problem — related to performance, behavior, etc., and the options available if the problem is substance-related.

    The employee is able, at the point, to deny the problem is substance-related or accept help. Sorry, but I didn’t see any diagnosis in that info or violation of the employee’s privacy.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    Jim Giuliano
    Editor
    HRMorning.com

  • Loreen Zahn

    I completely agree with Mr. Loupee. I also find it hard to believe that any professional would make a diagnosis or an evaluation without seeing the person in question. Our company keeps it performance based. If they begin to share their reasons are medical, mental, etc. then we refer them to the EAP.

  • Carol VanEnwyck

    Because we have people working for us with CDL A or B licenses, driving our vehicles, we have a drug & alcohol substance policy in effect. All of our drivers know they are subject to random drug & alcohol testing. If someone is coming back to work after being out on disability or workers’ compensation for a period of time, they are required to be cleared from both his/her own physician and our physician before they can return to work. At that time they also have a drug and alcohol test. If the test is positive, the testing facility checks with the employee to be sure there have not been any legal drugs taken that could lead to a false positive.
    If there is (reasonable) suspicion of someone coming in to work with drugs or alcohol in their system, we can have them tested immediately. If we didn’t have them tested and later there is an accident, we’re wide open for lawsuits for letting an impaired person behind the wheel. For this same reason, if there is a suspicion a manager will bring the employee to the testing site. Our insurance company backs us up on this, as long as others are also being tested randomly.

  • Richard Loupee

    Jim-

    Perhaps our positions are not widely separated, or perhaps I’m missing the point. I believe most of us would be fine in approaching an employee with an apparent issue, and suggesting possible general courses of action (e.g., the Employee Assistance Program or the like), and also making ourselves available to help in some ways. We have gone through those steps in many cases, especially in situations in which the employee’s performance or behavior has taken a turn for the worse, but before we have come to the disciplinary stage. However, I believe that by suggesting the manager or HR contact a doctor or drug counselor based on what he or she sees (or what he or she believes), the article seems to take the issue from generalized possible causes to a specific assumption of cause. It’s that assumption with which I have the issue, and which I believe can only be the province of the doctor or trained professional.

    My two cents in any case.

    Richard

  • Angela Benitez

    In the industry I work in this is an issue. It is important that in your policies handbook you have a place that states that all employees must inform their supervisor when they are taking medication during work hours. This takes some of the responsibility off the employer and places it on the employee. It also protects you later if the employee says that he/she was behaving in a certain manner because of the side effects of medication.

    What I’ve done in the past is make sure there are definite signs that something is going on drug related or not. For instance, if an employee suddenly begins to miss work, their hygiene changes, they’re falling asleep on the job, or there are behavorial changes. I then, in a very subtle way ask the employee if there is anything going on in their life that is causing the above mentioned changes and/or if they are on any medications and proceed from there. This is their opportunity to come clean and it possibly relieves the company of any obligations to send the person for help.

    The easiest way is to make it a performance issue and get rid of the person. Unless the employee states they have a drug problem, I would not state that I suspect the employee of drug abuse. Remember that past drug use is protected under the ADA which is another can of worms.

  • http://www.drugfreecompliance.com Lou Ann LaBohn

    This is my job with Drug Free Compliance, Inc.
    Observations should be conducted by two managers if possible. If it’s agreed that the behavior is suspect, ALWAYS keep drug abuse as a last possibility. Document everything! There could be personal family problems, mental issues, etc. If it is obvious that it’s a drug (or alcohol) then the employee should be called in to discuss the observations made by the managers. No discussion is made, as it will only give the employee an opportunity to give excuses. The employee is then escorted to a collection site to validate drug use. If the result is positive, then you can address assistance, or just firing if it’s a small company with a no-tolerance policy. If negative, help in assisting with any personal problems by recommending a counselor.

  • Mr. B

    How do I approach a shop supervisor that is known to imbibe during his lunch break (away from the workplace) and comes back smeling like a brewery. Sometimes even reports to work in the morning the same way. Do I treat him like all the rest and tell him he must go for a random test due to reasonable suspicion because of an anonymous tip? Bearing in mind, that a positive result requires termination due to a zero tolerance program. The only negative in this whole scenario is that the president of the company hired him and did not make him sign off on any of the company policies which include Drug and Alcohol Policy. What are your suggestions?

  • RFM

    How about this one… my wife was fired for refusing a “random drug test” that was the result of “someone said you need to take drugs to come to work”. Her performance over the past 17 years was flawless and highly praised in her regular reviews. There was no reason to suspect her of any wrong doing. As a matter of fact, the day they called her into the office, they told her to finish her shift (one on one personal care for a disabled person) and then come in.
    She was not impaired, offered to submit to the test if they could justify the testing for a reason other than a mystery third party reporting.

    As an HR professional I certainly see value in covering bases… especially today, but is this what we have come to as a group of professionals. In a non profit company of over 200 employees, one would hope that better sense would prevail.

    I have sent the link for HR Morning to her previous employer… unfortunately, it is appearing more and more evident that our profession is sliding the way of bankers, lawyers, and mob bosses… has ethics completely left the building?????

  • Sue

    As an employer, do you REALLY want to help an employee you suspect is using drugs/alcohol? I’ll tell you how….FIRE them.

    Here’s why….I am THAT employee. I used for the better part of 10 years. The best Meth addict you’d ever meet…unsuspected by most, kind to all, looked normal, work ethic fantastic. Personal life was horrific, but you’d never know it. For the addicted who are working a job, living as a functional user and just trying to avoid painful childhood memories, or an abusive spouse or perhaps just wanting that extra “kick” to get going in the morning and maybe lose a few pounds…LOSING THEIR JOB, or eventually multiple jobs, is the best wake-up call you can give them. If they can still maintain a job, they have the desire to be a productive citizen and are probably just going through some mental depression or personal issues. Most likely they are in denial about the substance abuse and don’t even recognize why they’re self-medicating. Losing a job is a reality check and the only way to get through to them that they aren’t going to ever “get-by” abusing drugs. Not forever. So from a recovering addict to the workforcel; don’t reach out and offer EXCUSES for addicts to keep using. Just fire them. It’ll save everyone involved a lot of time and money. Trust me, it’ll be the most beneficial thing you can offer to someone with a problem.

  • DL

    Sue, You’re very brave to post that response. Thank you for your opinion on the topic and good luck.

  • LB

    Perhaps someone could help me with the following problem. A member of staff inadvertantly sent a text to me instead of their boyfriend in which she was asking him to bring her some weed. She immediately followed this up with a further message saying her sister’s friend had sent it and the predictive text had put in the wrong words. I do not believe this and as my business is in a small town where employees behaviour could have a serious adverse effect what can I do?

  • DL

    LB, Unless you know 100% then your probably best to assume that the ‘friend of her sister’ did send that text. People do stupid things all the time at the expense of others and hiding behind someone else’s name attached to that text could have seemed pretty funny at the time. Unless you have more to back you up than this text message you should let it go.

  • Carol VE

    It’s possible that this is someone trying to reach out for help and then had second thoughts.
    You can keep your eyes and ears open to see if anything illegal seems to be going on.
    Even though it’s a small town, illegal actions are still illegal. As far as having serious adverse effects if it is true, it is only that person’s fault even though it’s easy to blame someone else.
    Think of how you will feel if it is ignored, it turns out to be true, and the person’s actions result in hurting or killing an innocent person. This may sound extreme, but it’s happened before and it will happen again.
    Just be careful not to make any false accusations. Have solid proof and document everything.
    Anything we have doubts about we check with our attorneys. Expensive? Yes. But this way we know we did our best to keep everything legal so we will not face a legitimate lawsuit for careless actions.
    As Sue said, it is not doing a person any favors to just ignore it if there is a problem.

  • LB

    The problem is I have received warnings of involvement in drugs before but without hard evidence, from people who have no axe to grind but are concerned for my own situation. I did speak to her about her then boyfriend who had been implicated in drug dealing. I do not think this is a joke and in any event want to use it as a chance to introduce a solid drug policy. What should/can I include

  • LB

    Good advice thank you both. At the end of the day I want to help this young girl as well as protect my business

  • Carol VE

    When you introduce a new drug policy, have everyone sign an acknowledgment saying he/she received the new policy and understands it. This way no one can come back on you and say “I didn’t receive the policy” or “I didn’t understand”.
    There needs to be an effective date and it should be very clear what will happen if someone is caught and/or convicted (such as employment terminatation).
    Because we employ CDL drivers, our policy is very strict for drug and alcohol use (zero tolerance). Part of a pre-employment physical for our company is drug & alcohol testing. Our drivers are also subject to random drug & alcohol testing.
    The internet is a great tool for getting sample policies, but to be on the safe side it’s good to have the wording on any policies checked by an attorney.
    Remember, too, you can only help someone if they want help, and you do need to protect your business.

  • Here’sAQuestion

    We recently discovered one of our subcontractors was high while on the job. He admitted using illegal drugs just before his shift. We immediately terminated his contract with our firm, and helped him get help for his addiction. At about the same time, his girlfriend (another of our subcontractors) admitted that she had slipped a couple of weeks prior, as well. We knew she was a recovering addict, but she had been clean for more than six months, and we didn’t expect a relapse. A couple of months have passed since then, and she now wants us to consider recommending her for a position over which our company has some influence. Logically, my gut says we cannot even consider her as a candidate, given what we know – and I’m not sure how much evidence we would need to back up that position without violating her rights as a prospective employee. There’s more: The position is for an in-home care work with disabled individuals, and the team of care workers all have input to staff that are hired. Our company has influence on any staff member that is hired to work for our disabled clients, but the staff are hired by another organization, and they do not work for our company. One woman on the team happens to know this girl (who slipped) and her whole family (although doesn’t know of her drug issues), and has strongly recommended the girl for the position, and even talked with the girl about starting next week (although she has not yet submitted any background paperwork). We want to ensure we deal properly with this issue, and in a way that protects our disabled clients, and yet does not violate the girl’s rights as a candidate for the position. The girl does not have any publicly documented convictions for drug use (although she has one charge for minor theft a couple of years ago. She has also spent time last year in a drug rehab facility.) My common sense tells me that we must be able to use our first-hand knowledge of her recent drug-use to pull her from consideration for the position, even though there are no conviction records to back it up. Basically, she admitted the drug use to us – but if she later denies it, it would be her word against ours. Still, it seems particularly sticky since one staff member practically invited her to start next week (despite her background paperwork not even being submitted and reviewed.) We told the staff member that we cannot support the recommendation for “business reasons”, and asked that staff member to contact the girl to inform her that she can’t start until her paperwork is fully submitted and processed. Bottom line, does her verbal admission to recently using illegal drugs enable us to remover her from consideration? Your input would be highly appreciated.

  • http://www.drugfreecompliance.com Lou Ann LaBohn

    This is a person with admitted drug use in the near past. If this is a person whom is qualified for the position and has been a good worker, then you can ask the employee to agree to voluntary drug tests 6 times within a year for up to 2 years to make sure she stays clean. You’ll need to document this agreement and don’t show any schedule of when she is to go in for the test. Addicts have a constant struggle to stay clean and when there is an exposure to drug, such as a home care employee, then the temptation can be too great. Plus, she is in a relationship with an addict. Any positive test that comes back would allow you to take action according to your Drug Free Workplace Policy.

  • Debbie

    What I dont get is what if this person says he needs and has a perscription for these drugs (Legal and illegal drugs) because he has personality disorders and asbergers, then why should should he continue to work near and with children? This I would think, would be a great reason to lay him off or fire him and Not that I dont have compassion but I would think that as a employer just the legalities of keeping such an employee would be high risk. BTW, this guy is not employed by me but employed by my friends boss, go figure huh.

  • leeroy

    i was recently fired for a 2nd violation of drug policy…but no drug test was performed….i was clean…..a fellow employee sent pics of tobacco that looked like weed…..to my boss only becuz he had forged my name to reciepts were he purchased some jewerly and i have proof….he lied to get the heat off of him…is that legal

  • uucknaaa

    I am now finally winding up a lawsuit that I filed in 2009. But I was fired in 2005 and had to go through the process of proving that my former employer discriminated against me and violated my ADA rights. So in October 2005 I was approached at work to take a drug test because I was not acting right according to the college I worked for. They DO NOT have a drug testing policy and still don’t to this day, but I was a reformed opiate user and went through the whole rehab part and agreed to take one of their tests. They pulled out the yellow pages and found the first guy they could to test me and decided that it was good enough to fire me because the test said I had excessive Soma in my system. I did not and I proved it, but it has destroyed my life. But to make a long story short I won my case and a jury of 12 found Westminster College guilty on all of the charges of violating my ADA rights. The jury awarded 500000 but it was taken down to 300000 for the issue of limits by the ADA. The judge also ruled in my favor for their discrimnating against me for being an admitted addict that went to them to let them know that I was struggling with my addiction because of my pain. This was a job I loved for over 20 years and I never thought in my widest dreams that this would happen. I didn’t think that I had a chance to win but through the fight and wisdom I did. Reading your column above is fantastic and I really think that more employers need to be educated more on drug abuse. In closing this was a case that is almost 8 years old and look at the problem now in this day and age of prescription pills and all the lives it is taking. All people need to go through what you have down and take it to the point of a real understanding of drug abuse. If you would like to read about this case just go to the justia.com site and type in fowler v westminster. There is NO winner on either side of this issue, but if everybody would come and work together and stop all the blame and realize that it is a real issue in know that life could be a lot nicer. Trust me I have lost everything.

  • harry lorenzo

    What if reasonable suspension is brought up and after your off from work for a week your called in for another drug test?

  • small

    i work with 2 employees who brag about smoking dope, at work. one has a middle school age child and she also has a grandchild living with her. CPS recently became involved due to a violent incident with her step son on probation the CPS officer did not find the evidence of drugs as they bragged they were well hidden. her best friend’s husband grows and sells. who do I go to about this situation?

  • ajc

    it is against the law to fire someone based on assumptions… and even if there are proof, you CANNOT request for a drug screen… perhaps if the company have random drug testing, having the employee tested is a different story

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