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A Favorite Employee Tests Positive for Drugs. Now What?

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Business owners never imagine that their employee of the month, top salesperson or friendly receptionist will test positive for drugs. But it happens.

Substance abuse isn’t uncommon in the workplace. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that 70 percent of an estimated 14.8 million U.S. individuals who use illegal drugs are employed. This drug abuse adds up to $81 billion in employer expenses a year. Marijuana is the drug that's most abused. Cocaine and prescription drugs are also frequently abused.

Through the years, I’ve seen a lot of employers make mistakes when dealing with employees who are abusing drugs. And while it’s never an easy situation to face (especially when the employee is a friend or a valued team member), employers who are prepared will be able to make the best decision for the employee and the company.

Related: Why Your Company Needs an Up-to-Date Marijuana Policy

Handle positive drug tests with a level head.

It’s vital for companies to have drug-testing procedures and policies in place before beginning to test employees. The procedures should clearly state the type of tests to be used, their frequency and the consequences for finding positive results.

If an employee tests positive, this can present a difficult and uncomfortable situation. Following these steps can help resolve the issue efficiently:

1. Anticipate excuses. Often employees won’t admit they’ve taken drugs. Whether they blame it on secondhand smoke, a faulty test or a poppy-seed muffin, expect this type of response and know how to follow up in an effectively to uncover the truth.

2. Retest and confirm. I always recommend that an employee be re-evaluted after testing positive for drugs. For the follow-up test, use a qualified lab and be sure the results are confirmed by a medical review officer. If the employee tested positive because of a medication taken, a medical review officer can make note of this.

3. Consult a lawyer. Always have an attorney review the company’s policies for drug testing before conducting them. But if an employee tests positive, consult the lawyer once more about the proper (and legal) actions to take. States have different laws concerning treatment, termination and probation.

4. Remove the employee from the workplace. The employee should be relieved of all duties at work, particularly if she or he performs a safety-sensitive job.

5. Offer the services of an employee assistance program. Before considering termination, grant the employee the chance to participate in an employee assistance program for treatment or counseling. Termination should not always be the consequence of testing positive for drugs, especially if this is the employee’s first offense. Some states prohibit immediate termination.

If the staffer refuses to participate in the employee assistance program or doesn’t complete treatment, however, termination could be the next step.

Related: 4 Steps to Deal with an Employee's Substance Abuse Problem

6. Set a probation period. If an employee participates in the assistance program and returns to work, the focus should be on continued recovery and easing back into work duties. Consider removing certain responsibilities or privileges for a span of time as a consequence of the positive tests or requiring temporary supervision and subsequent drug tests.

7. Promote the company’s culture of support. While keeping the matter as private as possible, reinforce the fact that there's a company culture of support for all situations, including addiction recovery. Demonstrating caring about the health and safety of staffers will set the tone for others to adopt the same attitude.

8. Don’t play favorites. Refrain from avoiding taking action just because an employee is a friend or holds a position of leadership. Instead, opt for constructive solutions that will help the staff person move past this situation with support. If the employee is an important player at the company, address the matter rather than ignoring it in order to do the most good.

Confronting employees about positive drug-test results can be difficult, especially when this involves staffers close to management. But having a plan and knowing which actions to take can make going through the process easier. Just remember that everyone makes mistakes and the most important thing to focus on is the health and safety of the team.

Related: To Avoid Common Startup Ailments, Try These Preventative Measures