Bosses’ New Task Is Figuring Out Who’s High at Work

Workplace changes, including the rise of hybrid and remote work, have made it easier for some employees to use drugs on the clock without their bosses knowing.
Workplace changes, including the rise of hybrid and remote work, have made it easier for some employees to use drugs on the clock without their bosses knowing.

Summary

  • With one in six American adults saying they smoke marijuana, companies change how they police use of the drug at work

More Americans are using marijuana. Their employers are trying to decide how much that matters.

One in six American adults now says they smoke marijuana, a share that has eclipsed the number of cigarette smokers, according to recent Gallup data, and expanding legalization of the drug has led more companies to scrap employee drug-testing. Instead, many are leaning on managers to spot signs that workers are impaired on the job and determine what to do when they are.

For one thing, some companies say being high at work isn’t necessarily a fireable offense.

“It used to be, you test positive: ‘See you later,’" says Eric Mack, a partner with employment-law firm Littler Mendelson, who says he has trained employees at more than a dozen companies to spot the signs of drug-related impairment in the past two years.

“Managers are really on the front lines of making these determinations, and it’s very difficult to do," says Mack, who notes telltale signs include slurred speech, fumbling with equipment or otherwise acting erratically. He also advises companies to make sure more than one person observes that a co-worker is not themselves.

Approaching workers who appear under the influence is a delicate proposition, says Lisa Ahart, senior vice president of U.S. human resources for Toray Industries America, a synthetic fibers, textiles and chemicals manufacturer. Toray employs 3,000 people in nine states with varying laws on marijuana use.

Workers flagged for appearing under the influence have sometimes turned out to have a medical issue such as diabetes, Ahart says.

Toray bosses are trained not to assume, or to ask someone whether they’re taking pills or drinking. Instead, the company advises managers to look for behaviors they can document and to broach the issue with questions like, “I noticed you are slurring, stumbling—are you feeling OK?" she says.

Employees found to be high on the job might be warned, offered counseling or—depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the performance issue—fired, she adds. The company recently ordered a drug test for an employee in Virginia, where marijuana possession is legal, after the worker drove a forklift into an overhead door. The worker was fired after testing positive, given the safety violation involved.

Workers in some types of businesses, including those regulated by the U.S. Defense and Transportation departments and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are subject to random or routine federal drug-testing, which can detect marijuana use sometimes weeks after the fact.

Toray doesn’t fall into that camp. Across its locations, the company can conduct pre-employment drug screenings, or test if there’s a reasonable suspicion that a worker is high on the job, Ahart says.

The mix of workplace safety and pot legalization is “one of the things that sometimes keeps me up at night," she says.

Lunchtime pot breaks

Workplace changes, including the rise of hybrid and remote work, have made it easier for some employees to use drugs on the clock without their bosses knowing. With rising social acceptance, meanwhile, some professionals say they feel comfortable openly discussing and even using at work.

Giovanni Kapa, 58, a technician for an IT support company in Royal Oak, Mich., says he recently lit up a blunt—marijuana rolled into a tobacco-leaf wrapper—in front of his boss over lunch.

“It’s so accepted," he says. He wasn’t nervous about it, he says, because his boss didn’t seem to mind when he did it earlier at an office Christmas party.

He offered his boss a smoke to be polite; the boss accepted, he says. Then they got back to work. “It was: Thank you, have a great day," he says.

Though Kapa says pot might slow his cognitive processing to a degree, he didn’t feel the drug seriously impaired his ability to work that afternoon.

“It’s not strenuous work, you just have to think a bit. It’s pretty much, ‘I got this, I’ve seen this before,’ check notes and boom, boom, boom," he says.

Companies face challenges finding enough people to hire, and drug screening makes that even harder, says Natasha Jones, director of operations at HD Screening and Laboratory in Lithia Springs, Ga.

Companies that aren’t subject to government drug-testing requirements are increasingly loath to test, she says. Around 35% of marijuana tests her lab conducts for prehire screenings come back positive, she says, up from around 20% in 2021, often forcing employers to rule out candidates they might have otherwise hired.

Data from Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest drug-testing laboratories, shows a rise in worker marijuana use, too. Among the six million general workforce tests it conducted for marijuana last year, 4.3% came back positive, the highest rate in nearly three decades. In drug tests given to workers after accidents on the job, marijuana positive test rates have tripled over the past decade, according to Quest.

Confusion over drug rules

The swift legalization of recreational cannabis—now legal in nearly half of all U.S. states—has resulted in confusion among employees, some industry officials say.

In trucking, even drivers who’ve been explicitly told they’re not allowed to smoke marijuana outside of work are sometimes unclear on the rules, says Dan Horvath, vice president of safety policy at the American Trucking Associations, a trade group.

Many truckers live in states where marijuana is legal, but their jobs subject them to federal regulations barring them from using the drug. A recent survey by the American Transportation Research Institute found around a quarter of trucking companies have had misunderstandings with workers about the complete ban on marijuana.

Eric Waxman, human resources director for CRP Industries, an automotive-parts supplier and distributor employing 180 workers in New Jersey and South Carolina, says his company bans drug impairment at work. Waxman notes there are other ways someone can be impaired on the job, such as a lack of sleep.

“If you come into work tired and you’re driving a lift or cherry picker, you’ll also be impaired," he says. “It seems a little hypocritical to pick out a few things that could cause impairment and ignore the rest of them."

At the company’s South Carolina plant this year, some workers reported smelling marijuana over their lunch break. Those involved were warned not to do it again, he says, and it hasn’t been an issue since. Use of the drug is illegal in the state.

Waxman says that in a recent conversation with a plant manager there, both agreed that if they ever tested workers, it would jeopardize their ability to run the business.

“We’d have an empty facility," he says.

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