Drugs and Alcohol

by Ian Robinson

In a nutshell

1. The issue

Many companies do not have a drugs and alcohol policy, despite strong recommendations from central government.

  • This can be treated as a disciplinary or a medical issue.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse puts the organisation’s reputation, colleagues and visitors at risk.
  • Stress at work can be a factor.
  • The benefits of having an effective policy include reducing absenteeism, raising productivity and reducing the accident rates.


2. The problem

How big is the problem and how does it affect my organisation?

  • Around 17 million working days are lost each year due to alcohol alone.
  • It’s not just safety-critical posts; mistakes may concern financial or contractual decisions.
  • As their employer, you have a right to question the behaviour of staff away from work if the after-effects are carried over into working hours.


3. The solution

The most efficient way to prevent or reduce the impact on your organisation of drug and alcohol misuse by your employees is through creating and implementing an effective drugs and alcohol policy.

  • It should not intrude upon the employees’ human rights.
  • The appropriate policy will vary from organisation to organisation.
  • It should guard the organisation against the consequences of misuse of drugs or alcohol.


4. The benefits

There are many benefits to having a drugs and alcohol policy, both financially and in relation to human costs.

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Increased production
  • Reduced liability – corporate manslaughter and other legal implications
  • Reduced numbers of disciplinary proceedings
  • Potential reduction of insurance premium


5. Legal issues

Inevitably, there are legal ramifications to the misuse of drugs or alcohol in the work situation and you may feel that, as a manager, you are in the firing line.

  • If you suspect drugs are being used or sold at work, you are legally obliged to take some form of action.
  • You can have an employee tested for drugs or alcohol, but this must be done in compliance with human rights legislation.
  • If you find drugs on the premises, it is best to hand them directly to a legally authorised person.
  • You are not obliged to inform the police if you find a member of staff with drugs, but the response to this situation should be dictated by the circumstances.


6. The policy

An effective drugs and alcohol policy is not just a short statement of ‘zero tolerance’, nor should it be a policy that is written and then just becomes a document gathering dust on a shelf.

  • A drugs and alcohol policy should include a position statement from the organisation, clarifying the intention behind the policy.
  • Although ‘zero tolerance’ of drugs and/or alcohol use is an acceptable position to start from, the policy should allow for each incident to be judged on its own merits.
  • If an employee admits to having a drug- or alcohol-related problem, the policy should allow for them to seek treatment, if appropriate.
  • Do not be tempted to use an off-the-shelf policy as this is definitely a case of ‘one size does not fit all’.


7. Steps to writing a policy

There are five steps involved in writing an effective policy:

  • Planning – identify the need and the aims and carry out a detailed risk assessment
  • Consultation – audit staff for issues of concern and make efforts to get them to own the policy.
  • Getting started – decide how the draft should be compiled and who should write each section.
  • Implementation – formally launch the policy; arrange training for all line managers and possibly all staff.
  • Monitoring and review – if a policy is to be effective, it must be kept alive after the initial launch.


8. Training

A policy without training is ineffective.

  • All line managers must be trained so that they have a clear understanding of the policy, its aims and objectives, and how it should be implemented.
  • Managers should know how to identify problems at an early stage and tackle issues in the correct manner.
  • Staff drug and alcohol awareness training should also be included.


9. Searching

A properly-conducted search is not just a tool that can be used to identify any existing drug use: it can also be used as a preventative measure. A search can take several forms:

  • Searching organisation premises
  • Searching organisation vehicles
  • Searching with drug detector dogs
  • Searching with electronic detection equipment.


10. Screening

The screening of staff for drugs and alcohol must be handled in a very sensitive way, taking into account legal requirements and human rights issues. There are three main methods of drug screening and each should be approached in a different manner:

  • Pre-employment screening, which sends out a very clear message to potential employees that illicit drug use is not acceptable.
  • ‘With cause’ screening, which must be conducted with the agreement of the employee
  • Random screening, which may be seen as ‘Big Brother’ tactics.


11. Treatment

Companies invest a lot of resources in staff and, if the cost of recruitment is also taken into account, then disposing of qualified staff can be a very expensive option.

  • Treatment is often a cost-effective alternative to dismissal.
  • It should form part of the disciplinary process.
  • Ideally, the person should be independently assessed to decide their specific treatment needs.


12. Crisis management

Having carried out a risk assessment and developed your organisation drug and alcohol policy and trained all your managers and staff things could still go wrong:

  • The police might arrive with a search warrant
  • Customs and Excise could impound a vehicle and consignment
  • There are specialist companies who can assist in such circumstances