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Employer Substance Abuse Policies

Furniture World Magazine


Supervisory training and documentation guidelines

One of the questions employers most often ask substance abuse specialists is, "What type of training should be given to the managers, superintendents and first line supervisors who administer the drug and alcohol abuse policy?"

Supervisory training, in fact, does play a very important role in the successful implementation of a contractor's policy. Supervisors are the most vital link in any company's substance abuse program. They are the ones who maintain the day-to-day contact with the employees and are most likely to notice a change in employee behavior.

Although management has the responsibility to develop, implement and maintain the program, the entire success of it will be determined by the supervisor's ability to administer the program equitably among employees. Management must communicate its policy to the supervisors and provide them with the information they need to identify and document employee substance abuse on the job site.

Supervisors are sometimes reluctant to take action against employees, unless they have a clear understanding of company procedures. One of their more common concerns is that management will be upset with them if they suddenly discover that many of their employees are on drugs and that the supervisors did not detect it earlier.

It is important that management inform supervisors that it is not their fault for not finding out about these employees earlier. The technology needed to detect drug abuse and the problems associated with the use of drugs and alcohol are new. In other words, we are all learning together.

The supervisors also need to know that management will stand behind their decisions if they have prudently followed established company guidelines. This assurance is especially important for new supervisors, many of whom are recently promoted, who suddenly find themselves supervising a group of people who had been their peers. A new supervisor should be given detailed instructions and management support to get over any initial hesitation to enforce the company's rules.

Once the employer has sorted through the options and designed a substance abuse program that fits the company's needs, it is time to move forward and present the package to all of the firm's managers, superintendents and first line supervisors. When feasible, the company should hold its training program for supervisors at least one week before introducing the program to the rest of the employees. This allows the supervisors additional time to thoroughly understand how the program is to be implemented before the employees begin asking questions. Otherwise, the supervisors may feel slighted and the effectiveness of the program may be crippled, since the supervisors will be forced to defend something that they may not be committed to or fully understand. They may also tell employees that they have no idea how fair the program really is, since they only heard about it for the first time when all the other employees were informed.

Smooth implementation depends upon communication as well. Stress to the supervisors the importance of staying in constant contact with management concerning employee job performance. When supervisors have reason to suspect a drug or alcohol problem, management must be informed and all pertinent procedures must be followed to the letter. This is vital, since indecision or deviation from company policy may result in employee disciplinary action or discharge being ruled invalid.

DOCUMENTING VS. DIAGNOSING: The first line supervisors are both responsible and accountable for handling those situations when employees may need to be tested. Supervisors should clearly understand their responsibilities are to document the situations only, not diagnose them. For example, rather than calling an employee a "doper" or "alcoholic," the supervisor should simply report suspicious employee actions or behavior such as staggering on the job. Establishing the correct documentation on an employee who is suspected of drug abuse is critical. This documentation may later become part of a court record, if the employee decides to challenge the company's actions.

The supervisors' abilities to recognize job site problems depend on the amount and quality of information they have been given in their training sessions to assist them in their efforts to identify and document the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse. This information should take the form of written Standard Operating Procedures.

The supervisors are the program's first lines of defense against employee-initiated litigation. Therefore, supervisors must be held responsible and accountable for all employees under their supervision. Supervisors must ensure that employees are at all times fit to perform their duties safely and are free from the influence of alcohol and illegal drugs by taking appropriate and consistent action, whenever an employee's demonstrated judgment or performance appears to be impaired, or if an employee possess or uses illegal drugs or alcohol during work hours or on company property in the course and scope of employment.

The supervisors will typically be responsible for intervention in three types of job site situations:

  • reasonable suspicion testing.
  • reasonable suspicion searches.
  • post-accident/incident testing.

The employer's Standard Operating Procedures should address each of these situations individually.

SUPERVISORY PITFALLS AND NEGLIGENT DOCUMENTATION: Reasonable suspicion searches and post-accident testing situations are just examples of the types of circumstances that first line supervisors may have problems with if they have not been properly trained. In an effort to prevent these types of adverse situations, supervisors should not:
  • Diagnose an employee's problems as drug abuse or alcoholism.
  • Tell the employee that he/she has a drug or alcohol problem.
  • Discuss suspicion of an employee drug problem with other employees.
  • Document in writing that an employee has a drug problem.
  • Confront a suspected employee in an attempt to get a confession.
  • Allow employees suspected of drug abuse to operate dangerous machinery.
  • Attempt to document the discovery of illegal drugs without a reliable witness present.
  • Ignore an employee who is apparently developing a personal problem.
  • Fail to keep good and objective records of all employee performance.
  • Some practices and instructions for supervisors to keep in mind when carrying out a drug prevention program are:
  • Apply the same evaluation criteria to all employees.
  • Keep regular and objective written records of employee job performance.
  • Take action whenever job performance fails, regardless of whether a drug or alcohol problem is suspected.
  • Take further action if job performance does not substantially improve.
  • Know the procedure that management has outlined when employee job performance fails and extra training, transfer or suspension does not bring improvement.
  • Become familiar with substance abuse symptoms.
  • Know how to get help for an employee who says he/she has a problem and needs help.
  • Contact management and the Personnel Department the minute an employee problem is suspected.

Remember, while supervisors may be trained to detect symptoms, they are not -- and should not be -- responsible for dealing with termination or rehabilitation efforts. The company should ensure that follow-up on an employee who has tested positive be the responsibility of the company's Personnel Department or outside counseling service -- the experts best prepared for this phase of the program. When this system works, supervisors can devote more time to the jobs they were originally hired to perform.

In summary, supervisors should consistently follow the company's Standard Operating Procedures when attempting to search employee possessions or to test employees based on reasonable suspicion or post-accident/incident situations. Supervisors should then:

  • Report all incidents to proper management, if they are not aware of it.
  • Write a complete report of activities from first observation to the time the employee left the facility and turn it over to the manager for retention. (Use behavior/incident report).
  • Give any evidence, i.e., suspicious substances, bottles of unidentified liquids, to the proper management (use discrepancy documentation report).
  • Be available to attend a disciplinary hearing, when required.

The preceding guidelines are just options that should be considered when developing a "standard operating procedure" for supervisors. The final product will certainly contain more material than has been presented and should also contain precise information as to what clinics, hospitals, drug testing laboratories, etc. are to be used.

As president of Workplace Consultants, Inc., a loss prevention consulting firm, Mr. Wilkinson has conducted seminars, education and training programs for various industries and government agencies across North America including the Environ-mental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Questions about any article in the FURNITURE WORLD Magazine at editor@furninfo.com.