Requirements You Need to Achieve The Drug-Free Workplace

Drug and alcohol testing in the workplace by employers is considered lawful in the United States as long as there is no specific state-based restriction. There is no comprehensive federal law dictating workplace testing. The issue of an organization’s right to conduct employee testing has largely been left on individual states.

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Few states sharply disallow or limit testing while others allow it broadly. Most employers have resigned to adopting “reasonable suspicion” guidelines for workplace drug and alcohol testing because of the patchwork of state laws.

Understanding Reasonable Suspicion Drug Testing

For-cause drug testing or reasonable suspicion testing is a method employed by organizations to test workers for drugs and alcohol. Employers can test workers who they believe may be carrying out work-related duties under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The employer may require the worker to undergo a medical evaluation or drug test immediately.

Reasonable suspicion drug testing is thought to be a vital component of maintaining a drug-free workplace. It primarily serves as an effective deterrent. Employees refrain from coming to work in an inebriated condition when they know that the organization has a standing policy of making random tests based on supervisor suspicion.

However, this type of drug testing should not be carried out sporadically by the employer. The testing needs to be performed consistently and methodically in accordance with the broader federal guidelines on reasonable suspicion.

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Federal Criteria to Consider

There are specific guidelines listed in the “Supervisor’s Manual Guidelines for Reasonable Suspicion Drug and Alcohol Testing For Supervisors of DOT-Covered Employees”. This is a useful guide to cover during in-house reasonable suspicion training for supervisors even if you don’t have to be DOT compliant.

The guidelines state that reasonable suspicion testing:

  • Shall be based on supervisor’s observations
  • Observations should be contemporaneous, specific, and articulable
  • Observations should be based on employee behavior, conduct, and appearance
  • Should only be carried out by a supervisor that has received training on catching signs of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Observations should be made during or just before/after duty is performed
  • Must be conducted immediately

Federal guidelines also state that supervisors who made the observation will not be responsible for collecting urine specimens for alcohol or drug testing.

At face value, reasonable suspicion testing may look confusing. However, employers can protect their employees and the public by providing detailed and effective third party reasonable suspicion training to the supervisors. It’s crucial that organizations get their policies and procedures in place before commencing with testing.

Reasonable Suspicion Training for Supervisors

All managers, supervisors, and members of the HR team should receive adequate training on how to identify signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse. They should be well aware of the steps to take when they believe an employee is working under the influence.

Many organizations decide to train all their personnel to recognize the signs and symptoms of inebriation or drug abuse. This allows employees to report suspicious behavior to HR if any co-worker is under the influence. Training the whole staff has several benefits. It helps in creating awareness about the drug-free workplace policy. It also discourages employees from showing up to work under the influence.

Other benefits offered by these training programs are:

  • Increase safety at the workplace by discouraging drug and alcohol abuse
  • Improving performance at production line or operations
  • The decrease in absenteeism rate, which increases efficiency and productivity
  • Decreased vandalism and theft at the workplace

Indicators of Reasonable Suspicion for Drug Testing

There are several indicators that may suggest an employee is working under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, it is important to be trained on recognizing these signs since many times they mimic symptoms of a medical issue. The biggest red flag indicating drug or alcohol abuse is a decided change in the worker’s behavior, appearance, or attitude.

Supervisors, through the organizational reasonable suspicion program can document these changes and make observations. It’s critical that these observations are specific instead of being generalized or vague. Federal guidelines state that observations should be contemporaneous, which means it should describe the action at the time the observation was made. It should be articulable instead of being described as a gut feeling.

Firsthand observation needs to be documented immediately by more than one manager or supervisor when an employee is suspected of working under the influence. These are a few indicators that employers should look for.

Physical signs
  • Unsteady walk/uncoordinated movements
  • Fidgeting/inability to sit still
  • Unexplained sweating or shivering
  • Unusual body or breath odor
  • Sleeping at work or difficulty staying awake
  • Shakes or tremors
  • Bloodshot eyes/dilated pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Deterioration in appearance/grooming
Psychological signs
  • Sudden mood changes, such as irritability, inappropriate laughing, or angry outbursts
  • Unexplained fear or paranoia
  • Unexplained changes in personality or attitude
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
Behavioral signs
  • Attendance problems
  • The decline in performance/productivity
  • Tardiness
  • Money problems or borrowing or stealing money
  • Excessive absenteeism
  • Acting withdrawn from others, secretive

Observation documentation must take place immediately if two or more members of the management see the same signs and symptoms warranting a reasonable suspicion drug testing. The employee must be called for and tested after explaining in detail the reason and process.

Importance of Using an Observation Checklist

Reasonable Suspicion Testing Observation Checklist should be used by all managers and supervisors to document specific behaviors or actions that indicate a worker may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This checklist can go a long way in eliminating claims of retaliation or biasness.

Observation Checklists are lists of questions that need to be filled out by the supervisor while assessing the behavior of an employee. These questions make it simple to document observations of an employee’s conduct and actions. The checklist also allows supervisors to maintain a record of an employee’s behavior over a period of time regarding their work performance if drug testing is not carried out at the first indicators.

The checklist is usually drafted in a yes/no format and acts as a useful tool in recording observations about an employee’s relative performance. It’s fundamental that all supervisors be trained on using Observation Checklists appropriately to prevent claims of retaliation and biases by the tested employee.


Interesting related article: “What is Addiction?