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Positive Drug-test Results Terminate or Rehabilitate

December 1, 1996
Ethan A. Winning, president, E.A. Winning Associates Inc. in Walnut Creek, California, says:
Few companies set up a drug-testing program because of a moral obligation to the employee. More often, even when not dictated by federal or state laws, drug testing is conducted for reasons of safety of the employee and his or her co-workers or—even more likely—because of the potential liability to the company. Let’s say an employee is a loan officer for a bank and travels on business using either a personal auto or a company car. The employee is under the influence of drugs and is involved in an accident that killed the other driver. Aside from the negative publicity for a public institution, the bank now is liable for considerable damages.

Under such circumstances, there’s a very real conundrum of what to do while the individual is undergoing rehabilitation. If placed on administrative leave without pay for the length of time it takes to become rehabilitated, the company would soon determine that the employee’s replacement can do the job just as well. Now the company has a commitment (or at least some obligation) to both the employee and his or her replacement.

At the same time, we have the culturally based principle that everyone should be allowed a second chance. If the company is large enough, and the employee does voluntarily enter a rehabilitation program, the question is answered. But what of the smaller company? Without getting into the area of "undue hardship," to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge: The business of business is business, and a company doesn’t really have the responsibility of being the employee’s parent.

However, based on the principle that the worst thing that could happen to an alcoholic is the loss of income, any employee who enters Alcoholics Anonymous should be retained as an employee. However, just one "relapse" and the individual’s employment should be terminated.

Although there are certain to be variations on and of this theme, as long as safety is in no way compromised, I am in favor of allowing the individual to attempt rehabilitation and, in keeping with the economic principle above, at his or her own expense.

Jorge Luna, HRdirector, The Houstonian Hotel in Houston, says:
We present the employee with the option of a mandatory professional assessment (which may result in rehab and/or counseling depending on the results of the assessment). If the employee refuses the professional assessment, employment is terminated.

Our intent is to force employees with substance-abuse problems (we also test for alcohol abuse) to face the music, and for us as managers not to be paternalistic. We take our relationship with our employees very seriously, and we see this situation as an opportunity to help employees who are in a very difficult situation.

Sue Whitten, HR manager, Triumph Corp. in Tempe, Arizona, says:
Some employers have zero tolerance and terminate immediately. Some employers don’t have a choice (pharmaceutical labs, for example). Others are lenient. Our policy is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out process. The first step is a warning notification and permission given to us to test the employee at any time we want—for a period of five years.

The second step is a mandatory substance-abuse rehabilitation program at the employee’s own expense. If an employee provides proof of enrollment and completion, he or she remains employed. If the employee doesn’t provide proof of enrollment and completion, then he or she is terminated for cause.

The third step is immediate termination for cause. Overall, we try to give our employees every opportunity to correct a problem. Ultimately, the problem is theirs. If they don’t fix it, then they’re out of luck.

Personnel Journal, December 1996, Vol. 75, No. 12, p. 94.