Why Should We Implement an Alcohol and Drug Policy?

Inappropriate use of alcohol and other drugs can directly impact employee health, and the safety of the individual, co-workers and in certain industries, the public. Canadian companies in a wide range of industry sectors are increasingly taking a pro-active approach to this issue by assessing their specific needs, and implementing and communicating a comprehensive policy that responds to those needs. Why is this important?

  • It forces you to identify your specific objectives and use reasoned arguments and facts - not suppositions - to decide on the most appropriate means to meet them. In other words, the most appropriate balance between prevention and deterrance.
  • It allows the company to establish a reasonable and responsible basis on which actions can be taken, communicated, and defended if challenged.
  • To meet due diligence responsibilities and put in place a strategy which will minimize legal liabilities associated with occupational health and safety, hosting others, and impaired business - related driving, for example.
  • A clear, well communicated policy helps ensure employees understand the rules and consequences of violation. They have fair notice and good reasons to get assistance for a problem, or change inappropriate behaviour before it impacts the workplace.
  • With the rapid expansion of authorizations for medical cannabis since April 2014, and the legalization of recreational use in October, 2018 a comprehensive policy provides an opportunity to reinforce the fact that cannabis is a mood altering substance, and what the employer’s expectations are regarding use, possession and being under the influence in conjunction with work.
  • The policy will provide a focus for education and training programs, as well as guidance and support for supervisor actions.
  • This guidance will minimize the possibility of arbitrary actions on the part of management, for example in investigation or discipline situations.
  • Setting out objectives through the policy development process sets a base line for evaluation of the program to determine if it is being effective and meeting those objectives.
  • The process itself can provide employees an opportunity for input - which generally will lead to a better and more acceptable solution. The employees themselves will likely have a better idea of the nature and extent of any problem in their workplace, and be in a good position to contribute to solutions.
  • The written documents provide a basis for communication with employees and contractors, so that there are no misunderstandings of expectations. There should be two separate documents: a Policy for employees and a Statement of Requirements for contractors. The rules and investigative circumstances can be parallel, but having a separate direction for contractors avoids the possibility of an expectation of accommodation for a contract worker as they are not being treated like an employee under the employee policy.
  • This process ensures there is a clear understanding of the services provided through the company Employee Assistance Program (EAP) should there be one, and those of a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). An EAP provides a confidential assessment and referral service for any personal issue including alcohol and drug problems. The SAP provides an independent assessment as a result of a required referral to determine if the worker has an alcohol or drug dependency and provides a report back to the company on recommended treatment and aftercare provisions.
  • This process also ensures matters the company Employee Assistance Program (EAP) does not cover are addressed. For example, the EAP does not deal with discipline issues, contractor requirements, or investigative processes (e.g. searches, testing, etc.)
  • Importing a U.S. policy, or copying the policy of another company will not necessarily meet Canadian legal standards.

What Mistakes Should We Avoid?

It is important that policies aim to deter drug abuse, as well as ensure that people who need help with a problem have access to assistance. In doing so, they should strike a balance between health and safety (due diligence) priorities on the one hand, and security of individual privacy on the other. Employers will increase their chances of success by avoiding some of the more common policy mistakes. For example:

  • Don’t Copy the Policy of Another Company: Learn from what others have done, follow the template, but recognize that successful policies are designed to meet the needs of individual companies; this makes it both easier to communicate, and defend, if challenged.
  • Don’t Ignore the Importance of Communication: Inform employees that a policy is being developed, and communicate widely when final decisions are made in advance of the implementation date.
  • Don’t Enforce Your Company Policy Inconsistently: Employers have considerable latitude when developing their company alcohol and drug policy; once it is adopted, however, they should follow it closely, and ensure that it is consistently applied and enforced.
  • Don’t Act Without the Support of Top Management: Successful policies need a commitment from the very top of the company to stand by the policy decisions, and its full implementation. Management must not only be informed, but must also be involved in the decisions; otherwise, the program will be seriously undermined.
  • Don’t Implement a Generic “Fitness for Duty” Policy: Although fitness for duty should be an expectation for all employees, the policy and its communication should clearly state what the specific expectations are with respect to use or misuse of alcohol and other drugs. The policy should be clear on what is acceptable and what is prohibited in quantifiable terms, as well as the consequences of violating the policy. Rules regarding illicit drugs, alcohol and medications should all be clear. And it should be reinforced that cannabis is a mood altering substance.
  • Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Education Programs and Supervisor Training: These are two essential components of a successful policy; employees should have information about alcohol and drugs, their effects on performance, how to access assistance, and what the company policy is, while supervisors should also have information about their specific responsibilities under the policy and how to support its implementation.
  • Don’t Breach the Confidentiality of the EAP or Testing Program: A cornerstone of successful employee assistance programs is their confidentiality; it should only be breached by the EAP counsellor under very specific conditions that are established under the policy and in accepted EAP practices. In addition, drug testing results should go through a designated office in the company (normally referred to the Program Administrator) and only be available on a “need to know” basis. Companies should minimize any unwarranted intrusion into employees’ privacy and stress to management and supervisors the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
  • Don’t assume your EAP will automatically have the capability to provide Substance abuse Assessments: The SAP role is separate and distinct from the EAP counseling services. Some EAPs have set up a capability to provide this separate service, but make sure they know the company’s expectations in this area.
  • Don’t Introduce a Testing Program that does not meet Appropriate Standards: Utilizing anything but the highest standards, (trained collectors, certified lab, experienced medical review) can jeopardize the integrity of the program and may lead to legal challenge.
  • Don’t Focus on One Group or Class of Employees: The negative effects of alcohol and other drug use can be found in all types of jobs; consider having the policy standards apply equally across the company, and then allow for certain additional requirements that would only affect specific segments of the employee population (e.g. those safety-sensitive positions). Justification for such additional requirements should be clearly established; for example, because of government regulations, or the inherent risks associated with doing the job.
  • Don’t Confront an Unfit Individual One-on-one: Wherever possible, supervisors should not take action alone when confronting someone suspected using drugs on the job. It is also valuable to have a reliable witness present in the event of a subsequent challenge of the supervisor’s actions. In all cases, and particularly when there is no witness available, the supervisor should document the reasons for his or her decisions and the actions that resulted.
  • Don’t Send Impaired Employees Home Behind the Wheel of a Car: An employee who is suspected of being impaired for any reason should not be driving a company vehicle, or even their own vehicle. If asked to leave the workplace, they should not drive themselves home, as the employer risks legal action if an accident were to result. After any actions under the policy are completed (e.g. referral to medical or an alcohol/drug test), the employer should call a cab or have a supervisor or co-worker drive the employee home.