How to deal with drug testing and remote workers

Nov 18, 2020

A recent article published in People Management discusses the possibility to monitor and offer support on substance misuse to individuals working remotely. With consumption of alcohol on the rise during the pandemic, experts and employers have voiced concerns over alcohol consumption by employees working remotely and from home.

According to Alan Lewis, a legal expert at Constantine Law, if employees are working from home, the signs of alcohol and drug abuse are difficult to spot. “You couldn’t tell whether or not someone was uneasy on their feet or otherwise behaving out of the ordinary because of drink or drugs, so more reliance will have to be placed on observance of job performance,” said Lewis.

He added that managers should be trained to be aware of specific signs of drug and alcohol abuse on the job, such as being consistently late for morning calls or new errors produced by the employee, as well as how to respond.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, added that managers are usually the first to notice any unusual behaviour, and that they should also be having regular catch-ups to monitor employees’ workloads and levels of stress.

If an employee is suspected to be abusing drugs or alcohol while working remotely, Lewis recommends to first examine any policy you have on alcohol and drugs in the workplace, and then alert the employee’s manager. “The advice will likely be to have a meeting with the individual – via phone or video call where people are working remotely – to find out more,” he says.

“What you don’t want to do is move straight to disciplinary action,” adds Lewis. “Addiction to drink or drugs is not like one-off incidents of being under the influence of drink or drugs at work. There is a condition that means the individual needs help. It is only when they repeatedly refuse to seek help or take steps to improve the position that you would look to discipline.”

Furthermore, according to Liz Beck, MD and coach at Aspiring HR, placing a ban on the use of alcohol or illicit drugs during working hours is likely to be a reasonable and enforceable clause in an employment contract, says Beck. However, justification would likely be required to introduce testing for workers, regardless of their location.

“If you don’t have a clear business reason, you should consider whether testing is appropriate. You will also need to consider what your ‘trigger’ for testing will be. For example, will it be any evidence of any drugs or any level of alcohol?” said Suff.

Testing remote workers would involve numerous important legal considerations in any testing framework, including data protection, according to Lewis. “Any policies on drug and alcohol testing in the workplace are unlikely to cover home workers,” he said. “There are limits in any case to what an employer can do even in the workplace.” Furthermore, if an employee produced a positive test, Pink suggests having supports in place, “rather than saying ‘you’re sacked’”.