The Do’s and Don’ts of Reasonable Suspicion

We know that one of the top difficulties for an employer to be faced with is an employee who may be abusing drugs or alcohol. Alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace can cause expensive problems for your business, regardless of industry, including lost productivity, injuries, and an increase in health insurance claims. It contributes to an unhealthy environment and can create rifts and tension between the employee and others. While drug testing has proven to be an effective deterrent to drug abuse, we’re sharing our key steps to follow in order to address the situation safely and smartly. 

Let us start by breaking down Reasonable Suspicion. This term is vital to understand while you investigate an employee’s potential drug or alcohol use. What amounts to reasonable suspicion? There must be specific evidence of drug use through signs, behaviors, and symptoms. There are indications that can demonstrate a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, including personality changes, attendance issues, a loss in work productivity, and mood swings. It is important to document all of the incidents so there is a proven pattern of unsafe work behavior. 

Discussing your reasonable suspicion with the employee can be intensely awkward. To avoid as much tension as possible, it’s imperative to follow our do’s and don’ts for dealing with evidence of drug use. By sticking to the script and staying within proper protocols, you will set the stage for an optimal discussion and, with help, recovery for the employee in question.


Remain Consistent in Applying Your Company’s Policy

Begin by explaining to the employee the situation, the drug testing policy the company follows, and the outcomes of the results.

Focus on Job Performance ONLY

Legally, you must be cautious in following company standards. The discussion must be focused on the employee’s job performance, and how it has declined or changed. This ties back into staying consistent in your use of job standards and job expectations.

Support What You Say with Objective Observations of Behavior

This step is why it is so important to thoroughly document all incident observations. Explain to the employee what has been reported, and that in order to rule out the possibility of drugs or alcohol use that violate the company’s policy, a test must be administered. Relaying the information in an objective manner demonstrates that no one is jumping to conclusions, and that the employee will have a chance to prove the allegations wrong.

Act in a Calm, Objective Manner

We know it may be difficult to temper your personal feelings, but emotions will not help you to stay removed from the stress of the employee’s situation or help the employee with their own reaction. Instead, remain composed. Your behavior sets the tone of the meeting and can drastically alter the outcome.

Keep Any Conversation or Action Taken with an Employee as Private as Possible

From the initial meeting request to the final test results, all information and discussions must be held in strict confidence by everyone involved. Confidentiality is a right for the employee. By respecting their privacy, you are showing that you care for and are considerate of the employee.

Discuss an Employee’s Suspected Problems Only on a Need-to-Know Basis

The only people who need to be involved in the discussion will likely be the manager and a human resources representative. Keep the involvement as minimal as possible to adhere both to company policy and the rules of common courtesy.


Ignore the Troubled Employee and Hope that the Problem Will Go Away

Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to suspected alcohol or drug use. The documented incidents are proof that the situation must be addressed and not disregarded. Allowing your employee to continue their behavior will only result in work issues and productivity losses for the company. The employee is also  at risk for negative health and well-being issues.

Try to Diagnose the Problem

Though it may be tempting to offer insights into the employee’s life, it is not appropriate to diagnose the problem. Putting a name to the problem is speculative and unnecessary when a drug test is going to be administered.

Play Counselor

It is easy to instinctively react to the employee’s story or emotions in a sympathetic manner. Friendships are prevalent in the workplace, but this is not the time to offer advice. Even well-intentioned input can be perceived as judgmental by the employee, so it is better to avoid the role of counselor.


Moral judgements are not only unwelcome but can be provocative. Offering your own insights into the evils of misusing alcohol or drugs will only enflame anger and ruin productive conversation.

Be Misled by an Employee’s Sympathy-Evoking Tactics

It is very likely that the employee will respond to the situation with tears and sob stories. While they may offer valid reasons for the current situation, the backstory is irrelevant with regard to their work status. 

Cover Up for an Employee

Despite how compelling the employee’s story or protests maybe, it is not appropriate to grant leniency. Covering up for an employee may temporarily postpones the likely confrontation and it violates a supervisor’s duty to be equitable.

Allow Exceptions for One Employee and Deny Exceptions to Another

What goes for one employee, goes for all. By following the same policy for everyone, you are avoiding preferential treatment and potential legal issues.

Confront or Take Disciplinary Action against an Employee Publicly

Workplace substance use is a confidential situation. Publicly shaming or punishing an employee would cause lasting damage and would be a dramatic step away from a positive work environment.

Lose Your Temper, Get Emotional, or Use Generalizations

Emotions, anger, or thoughtless generalizations will only harm the employee and their relationship with the company. Aim for a productive discussion and avoid unnecessary feelings and jargon.

Discussing reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol use is one of the most difficult situations in the workplace. With our help you and your organization can implement a program that is minimally intrusive, highly effective, and designed to make the process as supportive as possible for both you and your employee. 

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