A recent survey says 12.5 per cent of employees use illegal drugs. Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 14th April 2016

The High Jump

How can we discipline drug users in the workplace?

I have a friend who started her career as a PA in a big property business. This was the 1980s, and London, and money wasn’t exactly hard to come by. Nor was cocaine: her first job of the day was to prepare for a directors’ meeting by laying out lines of it on the boardroom table.

Yes, that was 30 years ago. And if you look at the data produced by the Home Office, you’ll find at least one trend suggesting drug use is getting less common.

But it isn’t going away. Recent research from Crossland Employment Solicitors suggests that over a third of employees ‘know or suspect’ that their colleagues have a drug problem.

More worryingly, 12.5 per cent of respondents said they take illegal substances every week; 23 per cent admitted they’d done something illegal to fund their drug use. 12 per cent said this involved nabbing stock or cash from their employer.

Why do people take drugs at work? Naturally, there are the obvious reasons – chemical and psychological dependency among them – but it’s also interesting to look at the situation through an HR prism.

Wilful disengagement

Some experts suggest that drug use at work can be down to boredom – work being insufficiently challenging in terms of quantity or quality.

Perhaps it’s also wilful disengagement: employees who feel forced into taking the pay cheque and dislike either the dependency on an employer or the nature of the employer itself.

Beverley Sunderland. Photo: John Cassidy

There’s another, slightly more disturbing reason suggested in a 2015 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. The writer suggests that it’s the increase of pressure on individuals by organisations that causes in-workplace drug use.

In many organisations, one consequence of the global financial crisis was fewer people doing more work. Well, it seems that some of those people might need a little help to deliver that increase.

It’s probably a reflection of our hyper-competitive culture that performance-enhancing drugs are now such a prominent presence not just in sport but also in the workplace. Many employees, under pressure to deliver more than they physically can, are resorting to prescription medication – and occasionally the illicit stuff, too – as a way of going above and beyond what’s expected.

There’s a similar argument in a 2013 Daily Mail article too, called Work stress is now the biggest factor driving harassed Britons to drink, drugs and depression.

But what should we do when we catch users using in the workplace? We caught up with Beverley Sunderland, the Managing Director of Crossland and asked some questions reflective of the growing complexity of the issue.

I know an employee is using drugs out of office hours. I haven’t seen it harm her work. Can I fire her for what she does in her spare time?

BS: This depends on what she does for you. If she drives a train or a tube and is under the influence of drugs whilst at work, then this is a criminal offence according to the Transport and Works Act 1992.

If she’s pictured on the front page of a Sunday tabloid taking drugs and this is linked to your business, then she is bringing the company into disrepute. If she is buying the drugs from someone in the office in office time, this is also a criminal offence, according to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

In all those cases, she can be fired provided you go through a fair and reasonable process.

However, if none of these apply, the drugs are not impacting on her work and you only have her word for the fact she is taking them, then remind her they are illegal and that if she comes to work under the influence then she risks losing her job.

Say that you would like her to agree to random drugs tests to check she is not under the influence, and ask her if there’s anything you can do to help her kick the habit. If she refuses random drug tests, tell her you’ll have to make a decision based on your perception of her performance.

My creative director wilfully turns a blind eye to drug use in office hours because he believes it enhances lateral thought. Is that a problem?

BS: Drugs are illegal. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 makes it an offence for someone to knowingly permit the production, supply or use of controlled drugs on their premises except in specific circumstances, such as on the advice of a doctor.

The director, the Company and the employee will be prosecuted. If the employee needs drugs for lateral thought, they’re probably in the wrong job.

Every Friday night the MD sticks a card behind the local bar. Does this impact our ability to fire someone for turning up hungover, or being an alcoholic?

BS: Unless you work on a Saturday, this is unlikely to impact your ability to take disciplinary action against someone who is not fit as a result of too much alcohol Monday to Friday.

If your MD was putting a card behind the bar on a Monday night, then this would be encouraging employees to drink too much on a ‘school night’ and it would make disciplinary action difficult.

Can I fire someone for talking about getting high on social media?

BS: It depends on what they do and when they say they were doing it. If they are a pilot, and boast the night before a flight, then yes, they could be dismissed.

At the very least, you would call them in for a serious conversation about it, pointing out that drugs are illegal, and perhaps suggesting that they should agree to submit to random drug tests to ensure they are not under the influence whilst at work.

Can I fire someone for cocaine use even though our Marketing Director is her dealer?

BS: Fire them both or you will also be prosecuted under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, if they are dealing at work. If you do not treat employees consistently then you risk a successful claim for unfair dismissal.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.