While productivity is certainly an issue, so is cost. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that U.S. companies as a whole spend almost $1.2 billion annually on drug testing. Most of the companies that took part in the AMA study, however, had never measured the cost-effectiveness of their drug-testing programs. Greenberg says that's because, in the big picture, drug testing isn't all that expensive. The typical cost for a business is only between $35 and $50 per employee. In fact, three-fourths of the companies Greenberg surveyed in 1996 spent less than $5,000 annually on drug testing, especially if they were conducting random tests that only focused on certain departments.
"Because costs aren't large, companies don't do cost analyses," he says. He adds that if, for example, a company is spending $1,000 to test its employees and cost analysis costs the company $2,000, most companies will choose the cheaper option, even though cost analysis might save more money in the long term.
Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, thinks that drug testing is often an "image thing" for big companies. "One large employer told me, 'I don't care if my drug testing lowers accidents and increases productivity. I have government contracts and stockholders. I need to protect my image, and this is pocket change,' " he says.
If you're the owner of a young company, however, the money spent to test employees is more than pocket change; it's money from which you want to see dividends. You'd like to know that it's not going up in smoke. According to Maltby, $2,500 is a significant investment for a small company, and the decision to drug test is hard to make unless there are benefits to testing. In fact, he says, many of today's large companies are quietly changing their programs to conduct fewer random tests to save money.
But many large firms will attest to the benefits of drug education and awareness. According to Greenberg, companies that combined testing with education reported their employees were 33 to 50 percent less likely to report employees testing positive for drug use than businesses lacking a drug-education program. "There's no statistical evidence that testing reduces drug use, but education does," he says.
Abrahamson calls education the "preventative component" and believes employers can benefit most when it's combined with options for treatment. "If you're committed as a small-business employer, you want to address the issue and help the employee, either through counseling or treatment," he says.
Another alternative to traditional drug screening is performance-based testing, also referred to as impairment testing. With this approach, jobs are analyzed to see if they pose a threat to safety, and the employees who hold them are subject to random skill, reflex and mental-processing tests to determine any impairments. Abrahamson says that performance-based testing could be a beneficial way for employers to go: Such tests are based on up-to-the-minute job skill assessment rather than a judgment of drug use, and employees are more likely to accept that as fair.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.