What Are the Different Types of Drug Tests Employers Should Know?

There are many facets to the hiring process today as employers seek to understand as much as possible about a candidate's suitability before making a final job offer. Alongside important elements of due diligence, such as the criminal background check and other types of verification, many employers continue to use drug tests as screening tool. In some industries, drug testing is mandatory. Although not every employer will deny a job based on a failed test—and there are even legitimate medical reasons to fail a test—many prefer to evaluate the results so they may make an informed decision. 

There is no such thing as a monolithic "drug test," though. Different labs offer different service levels, from the type of sample specimens they process to the categories of drugs they test. For employers who want to implement a new testing regimen or improve their existing approach, understanding the layers involved in the process is important. Knowing how to navigate legal constraints and a changing environment around some drugs is also key.

To start with, let's examine why the pre-employment drug test remains a popular tool.

Why Do Companies Continue to Use a Drug Test for Employment?

Employers may have many motives for testing applicants. That diversity of reasoning is part of why many states do not impose specific restrictions on how companies can consider drug tests. Some of the most common concerns employers have in mind include:

  • Absenteeism caused by substance abuse.
  • On-the-job safety risks caused by intoxication.
  • The increased risk of other criminal activities associated with certain drug use.
  • Meeting regulatory demands.

Employers often test for drugs to establish a candidate's stability and trustworthiness. However, there are regulated industries where drug tests are mandatory. In transportation, for example, a positive drug test can keep a driver off the road for months under Department of Transportation regulations. In some healthcare and hospital settings, drug tests are important to prevent those with substance issues from accessing large quantities of controlled medication.

What Are the Most Common Types of Drug Screening Panels?

If there is more than one kind of drug test, how many are there? The answer can depend on the lab you use and the products they offer, often called "panels." A panel might screen for a few drugs at once or it may only test the sample for the presence of a few major drug categories. Understanding the different types of drug panels starts with knowing what substances these tests can detect.

The most common substances employers test for nowadays include: 

  • Amphetamines, including illicit drugs such as meth and prescription amphetamines.
  • Cocaine/crack cocaine.
  • Phencyclidine/PCP.
  • Cannabis/marijuana.
  • Opiates.

Less commonly, employers may opt for broad panel drug tests to detect more controlled and illicit substances. These tests are often important for meeting regulations that stipulate the types of disqualifying substances. Other drugs often tested for include:

  • Barbiturates.
  • Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam.
  • Methadone, a type of synthetic opioid.
  • Propoxylene, a type of opioid.
  • Methaqualone.
  • Ecstasy, also called molly.

Remember that some job applicants may return a positive test for a legitimate medical reason. For example, someone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may have a legal and controlled prescription for benzodiazepine medication. Especially in industries such as transportation, businesses should consider partnering with a certified medical officer for testing.

Today, 4- and 5-panel drug tests are the most common as employers look for signs of heavy drug abuse, especially opiate addiction. More labs now offer panels that do not include THC/cannabis testing as part of the lineup. Tests of up to 10 panels provide additional flexibility for meeting regulations or employers especially concerned about safety and drug use. For employers in areas where you cannot deny a job based on a positive test for marijuana or those who do not find it disqualifying, these options are faster and easier to interpret. 

The Different Types of Drug Tests by Method

Employers have multiple options for conducting drug tests. Some types of drug tests cannot provide accurate information on all substances, and some will provide accurate results for a longer post-drug use period than others. These solutions range from tests that are very simple to perform and provide results very quickly to those that require special sample collection and more in-depth laboratory processing. 

Choosing the right solution depends on your needs, budget, and applicable regulations. Always opt for a conversation with your screening partner to explore which type of test is best for your needs. The testing methods include:

  • Saliva testing. Saliva or "oral fluid" drug tests are very popular because they are easy to administer and can often be given to candidates at the job site before lab processing. Saliva tests detect a broad range of substances and are popular for multi-panel tests. However, they tend to detect recent usage primarily.
  • Hair follicle testing. Hair tests provide a broad detection window, with some substances detectable up to 90 days before the test date. Hair tests can detect everything from cannabis to meth and synthetic opioids. Follicle tests are hard to defeat as sample collection often occurs under supervision.
  • Urine testing. Long considered the gold standard for drug testing, urine tests have a good detection window and can reliably confirm the presence of many of the most common drugs of concern. Since urine tests often require a candidate to travel to a third-party lab to provide a sample, these tests may take longer to process due to applicant or lab delays. However, they remain popular and effective.
  • Breath testing for existing alcohol impairment may also occur in some workplaces as a condition for operating heavy machinery.

Sometimes, a specific drug test may be necessary for compliance. For example, urine analysis is currently the only DOT-approved method for employment drug testing. Non-urine samples remain acceptable for non-DOT-regulated employees within a business. Don't forget that policies and rules can change and that you may be subject to rules even at the local level. Review the regulations your city, county, and state put in place to ensure that you can test legally and effectively.

Choosing the Appropriate Drug Testing Approach for Your Business

Will your business test candidates for drugs as a condition of employment? What about carrying out random screenings periodically or ensuring that you meet special requirements for procedures such as the DOT background check? Ultimately, the choice is up to each business. However, by understanding the flexibility built into laboratory drug testing today, it is much simpler to customize a screening program to target your specific areas of concern.

Remember, it's always a good idea to have a written policy that provides a clear procedure for collecting samples, handling testing, and reviewing results. Periodically review the rules and regulations that may apply to your business to ensure that you remain in compliance. Once you've taken these steps, you can select the type of drug testing that works best for your business—and partner up with the right agency to ensure smooth, consistent, and reliable outcomes for your applicants

Get instant updates on Drug Screening

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

Michael's recent publications

More Like This Post

State Criminal Search

Virginia Criminal Search

A Virginia state background check can uncover more criminal records. Learn about these tools and the legal restrictions involved.

Order a Search for Virginia