Too High to Hire

As employers struggle to fill open positions, one step in the screening process is causing them to turn away candidates who are otherwise qualified: the pre-employment drug test. At the same time, other job seekers, who learn that a company requires a drug test, are deciding not to apply.

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Both scenarios result in the same outcome: missed hiring opportunities in an employment marketplace that desperately needs workers.

Why Drug Test

Advocates of drug testing say it keeps companies from hiring individuals who use illegal drugs and deters current employees from doing the same.
They say it also helps reduce the negative impacts illegal drugs have on the workplace. Among the impacts typically cited are higher absenteeism, increased risk of injury, and lower productivity.
Additionally, proponents point to the safety of the overall workforce and the community at large as a reason for drug testing.
And then there is the cost factor. Employee substance abuse can result in higher healthcare and workers’ compensation costs, and increased legal liabilities.

Testing Process

Pre-employment drug testing is usually done after a conditional offer of employment is made. A job candidate must “pass the test” in order to get the job.
There are a variety of tests available. According to VeriFirst Background Screening, a provider of pre-employment drug tests, the two most common tests employers use are the 5-panel and 10-panel drug tests.
The 5-panel drug test screens for the following:

  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine/methamphetamine
  • Opiates, such as heroin, codeine, and morphine
  • Phencyclidine or PCP
  • THC (marijuana)

Urine drug tests are still the most common method of pre-employment screening. Oral fluid drug tests are also common. Meanwhile, hair analysis has gained attention due to the fact that drugs stay in a person’s hair for up to 90 days.

Drug Use in the Workplace

According to the Drug Testing Index, a comprehensive analysis of workplace drug use trends, published annually by clinical laboratory services provider Quest Diagnostics, drug use in the American workplace, fueled by illicit drugs, has reached the highest positivity rate in 12 years.
In 2016, overall positivity in urine drug testing among the combined U.S. workforce (this includes the general U.S. workforce and the federally-mandated, safety-sensitive workforce, which utilizes only urine analysis) was 4.2 percent, a five percent relative increase over the 2015 rate of 4.0 percent, and the highest annual positivity rate since 2004.
The report indicates that positivity for cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine has been on an upward trend for several years.
The 4.2 percent statistic pertains to all workplace drug testing, including periodic, random, post-accident, pre-employment, and other testing reasons.
Pre-employment drug testing alone results in even more eye-opening numbers.
From January to December 2016, among the general U.S. workforce, 4.4 percent of pre-employment urine drug tests were positive; 10.8 percent of pre-employment oral fluid drug tests were positive; and 9.5 percent of hair drug tests were positive.

Turning Away Candidates

Clearly, there is a problem.
Drug positivity rates for all workplace testing have been higher, however. In 1988, for example, the overall positivity in urine drug testing among the combined U.S. workforce was 13.6 percent, in comparison to the current 4.2 percent.
The issue today is exacerbated by low unemployment.
The New York Times, CNN, and others have reported on the challenges hiring companies currently face, and how drug testing is a factor. Anecdotally, it seems everyone has a story about an employer turning away would-be workers because of drug testing.
One idea being floated is to stop screening for THC. As marijuana legalization for medical and recreational use has become more common, this may seem like a logical step. But, as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) points out, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which means employers can still test for it.
Be that as it may, among the positivity rates by drug category, cited in the Quest report, marijuana far exceeds other drugs. This strongly suggests that many job candidates who use marijuana are being rejected.
The exact number is impossible to quantify, but calculations based on Quest data suggest that tens of thousands of job candidates have tested positive for marijuana during pre-employment screening. And keep in mind that the Quest report is based only on drug tests analyzed at Quest facilities.
No matter where you stand on marijuana use and legalization, this information is noteworthy.

Paula Paula Santonocito, Contributing Editor for Recruiting Daily Advisor, is a business journalist specializing in employment issues. She is the author of more than 1,000 articles on a wide range of human resource and career topics, with an emphasis on recruiting and hiring. Her articles have been featured in many global and domestic publications and information outlets, referenced in academic and legal publications as well as books, and translated into several languages.