Employee Drug Testing

Is it Ethical or an Invasion of Privacy?

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Last Christmas, I took a part-time job as a cashier in a retail store. On the same day that I was hired, the manager informed me that I would have to submit to a drug test. Since I’m drug free, I had no problem with this. I asked him where I needed to go to complete the test and he proudly informed me that all of the drug screens were done right there on site. I was a little surprised by this, afterall it was a store — not a lab — but I didn’t really let it throw me that much. The manager then reached into his desk and handed me a large plastic cup that was sealed in a plastic bag. I was starting to get a little uncomfortable at this point.

Here you go.” He said, as he handed the bag to me. “Just take this into the ladies room and fill it up to the line in the center. Maggie will accompany you.”

Okay. Now here’s where it begins to get really creepy. The woman named Maggie not only followed me to the ladies room, but she followed me in and there were not stalls. I informed her that I would have a hard time providing a urine sample with her watching me. She gave me a weak smile and then told me what she must have told all the others before me, “Honey, you ain’t got nothin’ I ain’t seen before.”

Not really finding much comfort in her words, I decided to give it a try. After five minutes of standing over the cup, I informed her that I couldn’t do it with her in the room.

None of the others had a problem with it. Besides, we’ve gotta make sure that the urine sample is really yours before we test it.”

After fifteen more minutes, I was able to fill the cup to the requisite line and hand it off to Maggie. I washed my hands and walked out of the store. The same day Maggie called me and told me I’d passed. I never went back.

This scenario is probably not very common, but pre-employment and random drug testing at work is becoming the norm for the workforce of the 21st century..”..in the old days, it was rare for someone to come to worked stoned on drugs or for managers to have to worry about coke heads in the office.” (Castro et al., 1986) Not anymore. Illegal drugs have become so pervasive in the U.S. workplace that drug tests have become routine in almost every industry.

So is drug testing an ethically defensible practice in the workplace? Should employers be able to test applicants prior to offering employment and then randomly there after for the duration of ones employment with the company?

Most feel that the answer to these questions is a resounding yes. If drug-testing programs are managed properly and allow employees to be treated with dignity and respect they probably do make perfect sense.

Every drug-testing program in the workplace should have clear guidelines and policies that are established and followed. To their credit, many companies that utilize random drug testing actually seek first to rehabilitate workers through an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or some other type of drug treatment curriculum prior to starting the steps of progressive discipline. “To help put impaired workers on the road to rehabilitation, about 30% of Fortune 500 companies…have established in-house employee assistance programs.” (Castro et al.)

In the last ten years, since drug testing has become more common place — drug use on the job has actually decreased. The number of people that are testing positive for drug use at work dropped noticeably. SmithKline, one of the largest labs that conducts drug screenings reported that in 1994 out of 3.6 million drug tests performed, only 7.5% were positive for drug use. This was a drop of 0.9% from the previous year. (Positive Drug Tests…1995)

So are the new policies on pre-employment and random drug testing actually dissuading U.S. workers from using drugs? According to a recent article the new boom of drug tests has not decreased overall drug usage among workers but it has “spawned a whole (new) industry of tricks to (help employees) avoid being tested as positive.”(New Trade Boom, 2000)

So what is the real business argument for drug testing in the work place? Why is it necessary and more over — is it ethical? What are the legal implications of workplace drug testing? Should employers be responsible for what their employees do in their free time? “No employer has the civil liberty to ignore the consequences of substance abuse in the work-place and the impact that it has on the public…anyone who wants to argue on the contrary should (look at the facts).” (Langdon-Down, 1997)

Other people feel that as a general rule, this is definitely an issue of privacy and that employers should not take on the role of policing their workforce unless they exhibit behaviors often associated with drug abuse. (Langdon-Down)

However, this method often is subjective and may lead to claims of racial profiling and discrimination, which is why most employers opt to test randomly and do very little for-cause drug testing unless absolutely warranted.

I think the strongest argument in favor of drug testing lies in the fact that “employers face a number of potential liabilities, including personal injury and constructive discharge dismissal claims from employees harmed by someone who was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and personal injury claims from members of the public (who are) harmed by an employee under the general vicarious liability procedure.” (Langdon-Down) In other words if an employer knows (or should have known) that an employee was driving a company car or operating a forklift under the influence of drugs or alcohol, than the employer is vicariously liable should someone be injured or even killed as a result of their actions. With this in mind, I feel that drug testing makes good sense, and is an ethical practice. But what about the white collar worker? How can a banker, for instance, harm someone at work if he or she is on drugs? Well, I’m sure that many of us would think twice about entrusting our money to a bank whose employees were drug addicted. We might not be in physical danger from these employees, but our money might not be as safe as we would like.

In the end, every person has the right to refuse to submit to a drug test — and conversely, employers have the right to conduct these programs and not extend offers of employment (or continued employment) for those that do not comply.


Castro, Janice, et al. (1986, March). Battling the Enemy Within:

Clarke, Allison (1998, November 19). Law: Randomly Testing Time. Independent, 16.

Companies Fight to Drive Illegal Drugs out of Workplace.

Drug, Alcohol Tests at Work Ruled Acceptable. (2002, July 22). The Toronto Star

Henzell, John (2000, November 24). Drug Tests at Work Growing. The Press, p. 7.

Kossoff, Julian (1998, November 22). Random Testing Puts Drug Users’ Jobs on the Line. Independent Sunday Edition, p. 6.

Langdon-Down, Grania (1997, July 16). The Case for Random Drug Tests at Work. Independent, p. 41.

McLean, Sally (2001, December 17). Soaring Cost of Drugs at Work. Daily Record, p. 8.

Morem, Sue (1996, October 22). Don’t Count on Getting the Job if You Refuse Drug Test. Minneapolis Star Tribune, p. 02D.

New Trade Boom to Cheat Drug Tests at Work. (2000, May 02). The Southland Time, p. 7.

O’Donovon, Deirdre (2000, September 30). Workers’ Drug Habits Costing Firms Millions. The Mirror, p. 5.

Positive Drug Tests In the Workplace Down. (1995, March 7). Wisconsin State Journal, p. 8B.

Time, 52.

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