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Part of having a drug and alcohol policy at your company is to enforce it when violated. But identifying substance abuse in the workplace is tricky. 

Companies with drug-free policies have different ways of educating employees on those policies and how the policies are implemented. One of the more challenging components of this is “reasonable suspicion testing,” which essentially requires supervisors to take on a role that may be unfamiliar to them.

In a survey of companies conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), about one third (35%) of employers conduct reasonable suspicion testing. This is less common than random testing (47%) and post-accident testing (51%), perhaps because many employers are unclear how to go about approaching an employee whose behaviors appear to be “off.”

When does a supervisor decide if an employee’s behavior might be drug- or alcohol-induced? The effects of all the street and pharmaceutical drugs that are abused are different across a broad spectrum: some substances cause “up” behaviors, such as jittery nervousness, while others are “downers,” which can include sleepiness, inattention to work and the work environment, or an irritation when interacting with others.

The short answer to that is employers should provide their managerial-level employees with reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol training. This may be available through your vendor for drug and alcohol testing services.

A slightly longer answer is how there are some key behaviors to watch for. From a Department of Transportation (DOT) guide, those include:

Changes in social interactions. This may include irritability, hostility, withdrawal, or excessive talkativeness, silliness, boisterousness, paranoia, hyper-sensitive reactions. The point is to look for changes from previous “baseline” behaviors.

Noticeable speech patterns. Again, this is about changes from the norm of the individual. Stimulants can lead to rapid, pressured speech while other people on other substances might have slurred, thick or incoherent speech. Nonsensical and dreamlike speech can be the result of hallucinogens.

Personality changes. This is a bit more subtle and could only be spotted by a trained individual who has known the employee in question for a period of time (preceding substance abuse).

Psychomotor changes. Aside from verbal and personality cues there are physical movements that might trigger suspicion. Poor eye-hand coordination, unsteadiness, restlessness/fidgeting, delayed reaction times, and falling into stupor can often (but not always) indicate substance abuse.

A note of caution: There might be an underlying illness or injury at fault, not substance abuse. This is why training – and testing, to rule out drug or alcohol abuse – could be a service to all employees.  

Also, just because a prospective employee passes the required pre-employment drug and alcohol testing, this doesn’t mean that they are immune to having a problem further down the road as a long time employee.

Along with a strong workplace drug and alcohol policy, providing your supervisors with reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol training can help you and your company avoid possible litigation. It will clarify to your supervisors what is, and what isn’t, their responsibility when dealing with employees exhibiting odd behaviors. It will inform them of the common drugs found in the workplace and their effects.

Employers should recognize when a situation requires a serious and immediate response from them, and how to address the situation in a professional manner. Knowing how to approach and interview a suspected employee in a manner that is respectful and not disruptive is a critical skill in reasonable suspicion training.

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