Pre-Employment Drug Testing: Is it Worth It?
You know that feeling after conducting an interview… The one where you essentially have to hide your pure giddiness over getting the paperwork signed? That’s an HR person’s dream. But such scenarios can soon turn to nightmares when the topic of pre-employment drug testing emerges.
But, isn’t drug testing a good thing? It’s a screening criterion to help get the best people into your company, right?
Truthfully, the verdict is still out as to whether or not pre-employment drug testing may actually lead to increased job performance.
And in an age when there are more open jobs than people seeking jobs, companies are beginning to question the importance of new hire drug testing.
The Data Behind Pre-Employment Drug Testing
Currently, an estimated 70 percent of companies with more than 2,500 employees conduct pre-employment drug screens, and they cover about 40 percent of all jobs. But studies suggest this practice may not necessarily lead to onboarding better candidates.
Studies Show Decreased Productivity Among Drug Users
Two studies of postal workers conducted in the late 1980s (near the peak of the crack epidemic in the US), drug tested job applicants, but did not show the results to people making hiring decisions. Interviewers hired who they felt was best for the job, unaware of their drug activity. Both studies found that employees who had tested positive on their pre-employment drug screen were absent more frequently and were more likely to be fired than those who tested negative. (In one of the studies, accidents and injuries also increased among the “positive” group).
However, in each case, the smaller group of employees who had tested positive for cocaine performed worse on the job than the larger group that had tested positive for cannabis. (Note that neither study included any significant number of opioid or methamphetamine positives, two of the drugs that most concern US employers today).
OK, so we’ve just proved that pre-employment drug testing DOES work.
Not so fast. These studies were purely for research purposes. None of the workplaces involved rejected drug-positive applicants, giving them no incentive to abstain before being tested.
However, when a workplace uses the pre-employment drug test as a screening criterion — as is common today — employees have every reason to abstain from drugs in the days leading up to a test, even if they intend to use them later. In fact, three days is generally sufficient to clear the body of the metabolites of most drugs, with the exception of cannabis, which may be detectable for several weeks in heavy users.
What research doesn’t show is whether job performance is affected when applicants have reason to actively avoid testing positive.
The Costs of Pre-Employment Drug Testing
Because drug users are aware of the pre-employment drug screen process, they are likely to avoid drug usage in the days leading up to the test. This results in a negative result, onboarding of the candidate, and the yet-to-be-answered question of how drug use affects job productivity (although, there is room for discussion here about the benefits of random drug testing in addition to pre-employment testing).
It also makes the financial cost of “weeding out” drug users very high (puns unintended). Because job applicants know they will be tested, they avoid drugs prior to the test and get a negative result. If they know they won’t pass, they often decline the job prior to the drug test. This makes the cost of the few tests that return positive results incredibly high.
There seems to be a lack of research in the realm of employment, but the process of enrolling in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program exhibits similar results. Low-income Americans who seek such assistance are subject to a drug test (in 13 states). They know this and can avoid using drugs prior to the test.
Overall, these 13 states tested 2,826 people out of about 250,000 applicants and recipients in 2016. Of those tested, only 369 came back positive. The positive drug test rate out of all applicants (only in states where any tests returned positive results), ranged from 0.07 percent to 2.14 percent. This is not indicative of the national drug use rate of 9.4 percent for the general population, nor is it cost effective — States collectively spent more than $1.3 million on drug testing for TANF in 2016, to find only 369 users.
Using the TANF program as an example, it stands to reason that testing every job applicant (as is the protocol for most companies that conduct pre-employment drug testing) would result in a much higher cost per positive result.
It’s safe to say that research is inconclusive and further studies are needed to determine the effects of cannabis and other drugs in the workplace.
If you’re establishing or revising your company’s drug protocol, give us a call to talk through exactly what must be included and what areas may have room for debate within your company.