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Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Determining Reasonable Suspicion

by | Feb 8, 2018 | Business Training

DigitalChalk: Reasonable Suspicion Discussion

Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Determining Reasonable Suspicion

Karle Stinehour
(Estimated Reading Time 5 min.)

Filling knowledge gaps and building awareness in the workplace. It’s how DigitalChalk serves the small to mid-sized business segment.

The statistics on the high cost of substance abuse to the individual and to the workplace are staggering and well-documented. Current numbers indicate that 70% of drug abusers are employed. Drug and alcohol abusers in the workplace are:

DigitalChalk: Alcohol Abusers In The Workplace

Not only can a substance-abusing employee put the health and safety of your workplace at risk, but the increase in medical claims and accidents costs an estimated $7,000/per substance-abusing employee annually.

So what can we do to detect and eliminate substance abuse in the workplace? For the answer to that question, we called on the expertise of Visify, one of our premier content partners specializing in educating employers and managers about substance abuse. Visify’s recommendation is implementing a proven method of dealing with drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace known as reasonable suspicion testing.

Reasonable Suspicion Defined

Visify defines reasonable suspicion as the belief that an employee could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol based on observations of appearance or behavior. Suspicions of substance abuse or impairment in an employee must be based on observable factors. That is before a supervisor can require an employee to have any sort of testing, he or she must have concrete, documented evidence of the employee’s behavior and performance.

The most important thing to remember about reasonable suspicion testing is that the goal of the test is to determine that alcohol or drugs are not the cause of the observed behavior or appearance.

Reservations and Qualms

Understandably, you might have some reservations about how to responsibly implement reasonable suspicion practices in your workplace. What if an employee takes legal action against you? What if your suspicions were wrong? What if bringing an issue to light causes irreparable damage to your work relationships?

The reality is that you are actually more in danger of litigation for not taking action in cases of drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace. Negligent retention lawsuits are on the rise and employers are being sued nationwide for negligence or the refusal to deal with substance abuse. In the case of incorrect suspicions, it’s a good thing that you were wrong. The goal of reasonable suspicion is not to prove that you were right, but to rule out substance abuse. Finally, drugs and alcohol can ruin relationships in a work environment much more than the proper usage of reasonable suspicion testing.

What To Do?

In the best interest of your employees and your workplace, you must act immediately on any allegation of drug or alcohol abuse. For this reason, developing a protocol for determining and documenting the need for reasonable suspicion testing is critical. For help, let’s turn again to the experts at Visify.

The Protocol

Visify recommends the following actions in any case that indicates reasonable suspicion:

DigitalChalk: Reasonable Suspicion Protocol

The Process

Visify also provides these 5 guiding principles in any situation indicating reasonable suspicion:

  1. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Remember, the purpose of reasonable suspicion is to rule out substance abuse. A documented reasonable suspicion policy helps ensure that everyone follows a process in a manner that’s both legal and appropriate.
  2. Confidentiality is critical. This principle might seem obvious, but you should not discuss this procedure with any party that is not directly involved.
  3. Reasonable Suspicion testing is just one tool among many. Some observed behaviors, like decreased employee productivity or absenteeism, can be explained by other performance issues other than substance abuse. Again, remember that the purpose of reasonable suspicion is to rule out substance abuse.
  4. Always consult with your Designated Employer Representative. Check with your HR department to review your reasonable suspicion policy before taking any action.
  5. “Bedside” manner is critical. Clearly communicate with your employee. Avoid diagnoses and accusations. Always rely on documented company policy.

When in doubt, always double-check your company’s reasonable suspicion policy to take any required additional action.


Included here are several possible scenarios in which you might use reasonable suspicion. Each of these scenarios comes from the DOT reasonable suspicion guide.DigitalChalk: Illegal Substances

  1. You enter the restroom and hear a someone curse in one of the stalls. A plastic bag with white powder falls to the ground.
  2. A truck driver, who up unto this point has been a stellar employee with a perfect driving record, arrives late to work. You, the supervisor, think that you can detect the faint smell of alcohol on his breath.
  3. An aviation mechanic is behind schedule on one of his job reports. You go to talk to him, but when you arrive at his workstation, his eyes are red and watery and he is unresponsive to your inquiries.

(Source: FirstLab)

To determine whether or not reasonable suspicion could apply in any of these scenarios, refer back to the protocol and process recommended by Visify. Ask yourself a few questions. What other types of observations should you make before deciding to use reasonable suspicion? How should you document the incident? What is your company policy for reasonable suspicion and drug testing? All of these are vital questions that you must ask in situations where substance abuse might be a factor.

We understand how reasonable suspicion testing can seem like a daunting and complicated process, but the proper training can take out the guesswork for you. Let us help with some heavy lifting. The following training courses from our on-demand learning library can help bolster your learning and development program in this important area.

Visify is an eLearning platform designed to educate today’s workforce about substance abuse in the workplace and to empower managers and supervisors to effectively use substance abuse testing in protecting their employees and workplace.

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