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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

This is a Test: The Dilemmas of Drug Testing

The dilemmas of drug testing

Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

One morning as Katie Sullivan, 42, sat at her computer terminal, two supervisors came by with a request. They handed her a small bottle and told her to produce a urine sample. Katie refused. A few days later, she was fired for her refusal.

Katie is one of tens of thousands of workers who can be expected to be asked for urine samples this year under routine or random drug-testing programs. Through the analyses of urine samples, these tests can detect whether a person has recently used drugs.

Forty-four percent of young adults admit to having used drugs in the past year. These are the people now entering the nation's workforce. Faced with this alarmingly high incidence of drug abuse, some employers have instituted drug-testing programs to identify current and prospective employers with drug habits.

Drug-testing is multiplying rapidly in both private industry and government agencies. At last count, more that half of the nation's largest companies were contemplating its use. But, despite its growing popularity, random and routine drug-testing has created a storm of controversy over its morality.

Proponents of routine or random drug-testing claim that employers have a moral right to a fair day's work in exchange for a fair day's pay. They also have a right to inquire into anything that seriously interferes with an employee rendering a fair day's work. It's a well-known fact that drugs can significantly impair a person's work performance, lowering productivity. In fact, drug and alcohol abuse cost employers nearly $100 billion in lost productivity each year. Employees who use drugs have double the rate of absenteeism, higher job turnover rates, and cost three times as much in terms of medical benefits as those who don't use drugs.

Further, it is argued that society has a moral duty to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Drug abuse in the workplace constitutes a serious hazard to others. According to one survey, employees who use drugs have three times the accident rate as non-users. And, in some cases (nuclear plants and air-traffic control) such accidents could have horrifying consequences! Society's interest is indeed a weighty one.

Critics of drug-testing programs argue that employees have a basic right to privacy. Employers cannot intrude on this privacy without serious cause and in a manner that is reasonable. Routine and random drug testing, they claim, clearly violates an employee's right to privacy. First, these programs, by their nature, subject employees to humiliation and invade their privacy routinely and randomly, not because there is reasonable suspicion of drug abuse. Second, drug testing is not an effective means for screening out employees whose on-the-job performance is being impaired by drugs. The results of drug testing only indicate that traces of a drug are present in a person's body, not whether a drug is affecting a person at work. In some cases, a drug used days earlier will still register on the test. (Marijuana can be detected for as long as a month or more after use.) Furthermore, the results of drug tests are notoriously unreliable. Even under the most ideal conditions, 1000 of every 100,000 samples taken will give erroneous results.

Drug-testing, then, presents us with a difficult moral dilemma: How do we respect an employer's right to a productive workplace and society's interest in a safe workplace, and at the same time protect our fundamental right to privacy? Resolving the dilemma will require that we find ways of balancing these crucial values.

Further Reading

Mary Gibson, Workers' Rights (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983).

Anne Marie O'Keefe, "The Case Against Drug Testing," Psychology Today, Volume 21 (June 1987), pp. 34-35, 38.

Morris J. Panner and Nicholas A. Christakis, "The Limits of Science in On-the-Job Drug Screening," Hastings Center Report, Volume 16 (December 1986), pp. 7-12.

U.S. News and World Reports, "Test Employees for Drug Use?", an interview with Peter Besinger, Volume 100 (March 17,1986), p. 58.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 1, N.1 Fall 1987

Nov 16, 2015