What Are the Best Practices for a Pre-Employment Drug Testing Policy?

What are the best practices for running a pre-employment drug screening? We look at the eight elements of a smart, successful policy that employers should consider before ordering their first drug tests.

Employers have many reasons for wanting to foster a sober workplace. Most importantly, there‘s the safety aspect. Someone working under the influence can be a risk to themselves and others. That risk is especially acute in workplaces involving heavy machinery or other occupational hazards. Also, there are legal risks to consider—what if someone you hired causes harm to another because of their intoxication on the job? Could you be held liable for their negligence? It's possible.

All this doesn't even consider that some industries face local or federal legislation requiring them to conduct pre-employment drug screening. Although not every employer has such obligations, many choose to make testing a part of the hiring process.

When you decide that drug screening will be an important of your criteria for hiring someone, it is vital that you follow industry best practices to ensure fairness and accuracy throughout the process. What are the primary things to keep in mind?

1. Define Your Policy Clearly and Keep It Updated

Having a written policy to refer to whenever there is uncertainty or a dispute is essential to protecting your business. You likely have a well-written employee handbook, a definitive background check policy, and other regulations and guidelines to govern the workplace. All these provide the framework for a repeatable, consistent drug test for employment that can minimize the impact of personal bias. When you can only follow a procedure "by the book," there is less room for a costly mistake.

So, before any drug testing, make sure you have a policy that spells out aspects such as:

  • When you will conduct tests.
  • Who will conduct the tests.
  • What methods you'll use to test.
  • What you will screen for, and what constitutes an unacceptable result.
  • How to protect the medical information generated by testing.
  • How you will notify individuals about results.
  • Whether you will allow for "last chance" deferred action programs or re-testing.

By putting this in writing, everyone involved will know the proper steps to take.

2. Know Your State and Local Laws

Be aware of restrictions and requirements that you may face due to legislation at the state, federal, and even local levels. For example, businesses regulated by the Department of Transportation face a mandatory pre-employment drug testing requirement. 

At the same time, some locales restrict when or even what you can test for, such as cannabis. New York has very restrictive laws regarding cannabis testing and disqualification for employment based on drug tests. Since these laws can vary from place to place, you'll need to do some homework to be sure you know how to use drug tests legally and effectively.

3. Apply Your Policy Fairly to All Job Candidates

You cannot pick and choose whom you wish to drug test during the application process. Doing so can quickly introduce bias and prejudice—or at the least, it will create the appearance that you are not being fair. A policy you apply unevenly or arbitrarily is less effective and more likely to expose you to legal liability. It only takes one frustrated applicant connecting with one motivated lawyer for your business to face a lawsuit alleging employment discrimination suddenly. Rather than assume that risk, take the easier route: drug test everybody who applies or not at all.

4. Decide What Drugs Are a Disqualifier for Your Position

Do you want to see a completely clean pre-employment drug test before you'll hire someone? Is off-duty cannabis usage not a significant factor for you? Determining how strict your screening will be is another important best practice. Drug tests can reveal several substances, including cannabis, opiates, PCP, and others.

If you live in a jurisdiction where medical or recreational marijuana has legal status, check local laws to ensure cannabis is an acceptable disqualifier. Know what will qualify as a "failed" test before you start testing. Don't wait until you have a pile of results to review—and remember to enforce failures consistently across all applicants.

5. Determine What Type of Drug Tests To Use

Choose the type of employment drug testing that will make the most sense for your business. Do you need to hire as quickly as possible, and are you most interested in understanding recent use? In that case, a saliva-based test may be ideal, as they are easy to administer, and results often come back quickly. However, if you can afford to add a few additional days to your hiring workflow, a urine-based test remains the gold standard for detecting prior use of many drugs. Testing hair follicles is also possible. Explore the pros and cons of each method for your approach.

6. Work With a Trusted Screening Provider

For multiple reasons, receiving outside help from a third party is smart for businesses. First, it simplifies the process of arranging for drug tests with applicants, especially if they will need to report to a testing site to provide a sample. Second, it streamlines the process and lets you focus more on other tasks, such as reviewing credentials or running background checks. Finally, it’s a simple way to ensure compliance with drug testing protocols and consistently receive quality results.

7. Understand the Obligations Surrounding Medical Review Officers

DOT-regulated drug tests must first pass through the hands of an MRO (Medical Review Officer), as in many other industries. These licensed physicians review the raw data provided by the drug testing lab and help businesses interpret the results. 

For example, some results may not be as reliable because the applicant provided a "dilute sample" due to overhydration before the test. An expert explaining results protects you from making a mistake and provides essential context for a sheet of numbers and acronyms.

8. Determine Whether You Will Continue Testing After Employment

Will you need to continue testing employees even after you conclude the pre-employment process? The answer might be yes in industries where safety is paramount or you otherwise face regulations. Repeat the method you use for establishing a pre-employment procedure to produce documentation governing your use of random or suspicion-based drug tests in the workplace. Again, be mindful of the rules and regulations that may limit your ability to conduct random testing. By laying out both elements of your policy simultaneously, you can achieve the same level of confidence in both procedures.

Confidently Maintain a Sober Workplace With a Policy Founded on Best Practices

Though attitudes have shifted around drug testing and cannabis legalization movements creating a complicating factor, employers still have the right to ensure a sober workplace. Sometimes, it's more than just a right you can exercise—it's a responsibility. 

By clearly defining a written policy, knowing the law, and empowering your process with help from a trusted service provider, you can incorporate effective drug testing into your hiring process today. Fostering a safer, sober workplace is an achievable goal by using a repeatable workflow founded on best practices.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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