Testy, Testy

A Big Decision

Suppose you're testing your employees for drugs and you discover your most productive and knowledgeable employee failed a random drug test because of some off-duty marijuana use last Saturday night. Will you actually follow through and fire her? Or that promising applicant with the niche skills you so desperately need who didn't pass the test: Are you sure you want to let him get away? In today's tight job market, situations like these can be difficult, and small companies struggling with growth have it particularly rough. "Especially in high-tech right now, employers generally aren't willing to exclude 'puffers,' " says Abrahamson. "Too many are too educated and good at what they do."

Even an advocate of drug testing like de Bernardo admits that a tight job market can change the way that employers approach the issue of drug testing in the workplace. "Employers tend to relax their standards," he says. "[Lowering the standard] does occur. But it's not a positive thing in the long run."

Keith Snyder, CEO of 5-year-old Snyder Party Rental and Event Services in Charleston, South Carolina, has flirted with the idea of testing his 30 full-time employees and has called for estimates in the past. His current strategy can best be described as "don't ask, don't tell." When hiring, he conducts a background check but stops at that. "For now, I don't want to know if my employees use drugs," Snyder, 34, says. "I've been trying to find a dishwasher for two months. I can't afford to lose people."

Snyder adds that he doesn't feel comfortable judging the workers at his company, which had sales of $2 million in 1999, for the things they do off the job. "Can I fire a good employee for something done outside of work?" he asks. "When it comes down to it, no. I'm not willing to make that choice."

Raj Thiyagarajan, 34, CEO of Msys Inc. in Cary, North Carolina, doesn't test his employees because he prefers to have faith that they'll do the right thing. His business, which does application and Web site development for Fortune 500 companies, doesn't test any of its 40 employees. This isn't because of cost, Thiyagarajan explains, but because he believes in the trust factor. He says that to date, he hasn't encountered any problems with his employees and would want evidence of drug use before taking action. He adds that he'd know if a worker's productivity was dropping off. "Drug addicts wouldn't last long," he says. "We'd be able to tell if they weren't performing well."

Eric Greenberg, director of management studies for the AMA, has this advice for small employers: "Don't ask the question unless you're ready for the answer."

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the June 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Testy, Testy.

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