Talent Shortage Spurs Employers to Loosen Drug Policies

Talent Shortage Spurs Employers to Loosen Drug Policies

A tight market for qualified workers is making some US employers rethink their approaches to employee drug use, relaxing zero-tolerance policies for jobs that are not safety-sensitive, Steve Bates reports at SHRM:

Low unemployment and increasing use of illegal drugs are narrowing the pool of qualified workers in many regions and industries. State laws allowing medical and recreational use of marijuana are complicating recruiters’ efforts to find drug-free employees, as is the continued abuse of prescription opioids.

There are no indications that employers are relaxing standards for jobs that are safety-critical. Some such positions, including airline pilots and truck drivers, are regulated by the federal government and have strict prohibitions against drug use. However, HR and drug testing industry leaders say some employers are taking a new look at—and in some cases relaxing—their drug policies for positions that entail relatively low risk of injury or error, such as clerical and knowledge economy jobs.

What many of these employers are doing, it seems, is replacing the zero-tolerance approach with a more flexible standard that allows for case-by-case judgments about individual candidates or employees. Softer drug policies can also be a part of employers’ efforts to help address the crisis of addiction to opioid pain medication in the US. One Indiana company, for example, began testing its employees for opioids as well as training managers to identify signs of painkiller abuse, so that employees who are using these drugs can be directed to treatment if needed and moved out of safety-sensitive roles.

The other trend at play here is of course the mainstreaming of medical and recreational marijuana use, at least one of which is now legal in 28 states plus Washington, DC, even as it remains illegal under federal law. The growing public acceptance of marijuana use that has accompanied the push toward legalization means more casual users and more failed drug tests. The question of whether medical marijuana patients can be terminated for using the drug has yet to be fully worked out in court, though the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a first ruling on the matter this summer, finding in favor of the employee.

Meanwhile, given the tight talent market, employers are having a harder time turning down candidates, particularly those with valuable digital skills, just for being marijuana users. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation has suggested that it might not be able to meet its needs for engineers, hackers, and cybersecurity professionals without softening its policy on marijuana use.