Most employers test for drug use because they believe it curbs accidents, increases productivity and enhances the bottom line. In fact, in a 1999 American Management Association (AMA) study, 83 percent of employers surveyed indicated they believe drug testing deters employee drug use.
This kind of faith in drug testing has attracted growing popularity over the years. The AMA found that the percentage of U.S. companies testing for drugs increased threefold, from 21.5 to 81 percent, between 1986 and 1996. Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace, insists that drug testing increases employee productivity. "Eleven percent of the work force has engaged in illegal drug use," he says. "Drug testing is an area you don't want to compromise. We have safer and more productive workplaces because of it."
Recent research, however, questions the importance of traditional workplace drug testing. Last fall, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying off-duty use of illegal drugs contributed little to workplace accidents. In addition, a survey of 63 Silicon Valley-area companies, conducted by the Le Moyne College Institute of Industrial Relations in Syracuse, New York, found that productivity was actually about 16 percent lower in companies with pre-employment testing and 29 percent lower in firms that used both pre-employment and random testing. Why? The researchers speculated that talented workers in a tight labor market prefer to seek out employers who don't test for drugs.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.