How to Write a Policy on Substance Abuse in the Workplace (Free Template)

Here are tips on how to create and enforce a strong policy on prohibiting working while impaired — plus a sample template you can customize for your business.

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Employers aren't required to tolerate impaired behavior that may result from alcohol, prescribed medications, or illegal or legal drugs

Substance abuse in the workplace poses a clear and present danger to employees, coworkers, the general public, and property. Businesses must have a specific policy that prohibits performing work or being on workplace property while impaired. Whether it’s alcohol or illicit drugs, or even legally sanctioned or prescribed drugs that impair judgment or motor skills, or alter behavior, the message must be clear: you will not tolerate working while impaired. You must communicate to employees, with a strong policy, that there are serious consequences, up to and including termination. Businesses must evenly and consistently enforce this policy.

Creating a substance abuse policy for your business is the first step. A strong policy prohibiting working while impaired is critical, but business owners will need to tread lightly when crafting one. With the advent of legalized recreational drug use in many states and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that do not allow employers to request information on prescription drug use, the policy you draft must align with the law as it protects your workplace.

A business is not required by law to allow workers on the job when impaired with drugs that are legal for recreational or medicinal use (like cannabis) or if alcohol is involved. The challenge for businesses is to write a policy that prohibits working while impaired, rather than a policy that prohibits the legal or illegal use of drugs or alcohol.

Areas of concern: cannabis 

Just like alcohol, which is legal for adults to use, you can prohibit cannabis on the job if it leads to impairment of work or inappropriate behavior.

A majority of states have either legalized or decriminalized recreational or medical use of cannabis. But that doesn’t mean businesses must have employees on the clock with diminished capacity. Just like alcohol, which is legal for adults to use, you can prohibit cannabis on the job if it leads to impairment of work or inappropriate behavior.

For employers who suspect a worker is using cannabis on the job and is impaired because of it, the challenge is acquiring proof. If a company suspects a worker is under the influence, they may request a drug test. However, unlike alcohol which you measure in the moment, cannabis remains in the system far past the time of use. There is currently no way to verify the employee was using cannabis at work, or if they had used it days, or even weeks, before. A substance abuse policy must outline violations for impaired behavior on the job, regardless of specific drug used.

ADA considerations

For medically prescribed cannabis and other prescription drugs, employers will also need to take care not to violate employee rights. Under the ADA, businesses may not make inquiries into a candidate or employee’s health — that includes questions about prescription drugs. For workers who depend on prescription medication, their use may be critical. But again, employers are not required to tolerate impaired behavior that may result from drug use, even if it’s legally prescribed.

Focus on safety

The key to any workplace substance abuse policy is to focus on safety over substance. If an employee is impaired on the job, they put themselves, others, and property at risk. Policies should be targeted to address safety issues in the workplace and make no differentiation between alcohol, illegal, legal or prescribed medications or drugs.

The policy must be clear: employees who work while under the influence will be removed from the workplace immediately; subsequent action, up to and including potential termination, may also be taken.

The policy should also outline that safety is of concern for everyone: staff members and managers must report suspected impairment immediately to their supervisor or Human Resources. Along with a policy, staff members and members of your management team should undergo training on reasonable suspicion of impairment. Some of the basics:

  • Smell: most people recognize the odor of cannabis or alcohol
  • Appearance: dilated pupils, watery eyes, drooping eyelids
  • Behavior: staggering, falling, struggling with motor skills, drowsy, sleeping/unconscious, volatile or unusual behavior or actions
  • Speech: slurred, inability to verbalize or articulate

The policy must be clear: employees who work while under the influence will be removed from the workplace immediately; subsequent action, up to and including potential termination, may also be taken.

Tests

Your policy should warn if there is a reasonable suspicion an employee is working while impaired; a substance abuse test then may be required. Employees who believe a coworker is in violation of the policy should report the infraction immediately to their manager or HR. To help employees report issues more willingly, you may offer a confidential reporting option.

Once discovered, failure to pass the test, or refusal to take the test, may be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment, even for a first violation of the policy.

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Collective bargaining agreements

For some organizations, collective bargaining agreements prohibit peer-to-peer reporting of policy infractions or violations, but do allow management staff to report issues such as impairment on the job. While many CBAs have exclusions that allow employees to report a coworker who is posing a health or safety risk to themselves or others, when writing your policy make sure to include any specific contract language that addresses reporting policy violations.

Writing a policy 

A workplace substance abuse policy, as with all company policies, should include:

  • several aspects that outline the reason for the policy
  • To whom and how it applies; the specific rules
  • What will occur if a policy violation is noted or suspected, and
  • What disciplinary action will be taken in the event of a violation

Here are areas to cover.

Reason for the policy

Specify that substance abuse and/or working while impaired limits the mental and physical abilities of an employee. These can put the employee, coworkers, customers, and the business at risk for injury or harm. Working impaired, whether under the influence of legal or illicit substances will not be tolerated.

Scope

Include that the policy is applicable to all employees, contractors, interns, and volunteers at the organization. The policy must be non-discriminatory and include every member of the team.

Include that the policy is applicable to all employees, contractors, interns, and volunteers at the organization. The policy must be non-discriminatory and include every member of the team. It should also outline that — including working while impaired — the company will not tolerate manufacturing, storing, use, distribution, or sales of alcohol, or legal or illicit drugs on the premises. You may include exceptions for on-premise company parties and events that serve alcohol.

Rules

Outline the specific rules that apply under the policy. These should prohibit employees from using illicit, legal, or medically prescribed drugs or alcohol that impairs their ability to safely perform their work. Prohibit the sale, possession, use, manufacture, storage, or distribution of drugs or alcohol on premises. Employees should be notified they may not operate machinery or vehicles while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

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Testing

Notify employees of the types of substance abuse testing they may be required to undergo:

  • Pre-employment testing, if allowed under state or local laws
  • Random drug testing, if allowed under state and local laws
  • Reasonable suspicion testing: any employee may be subject to testing and/or formal investigation if a member of the management team has witnessed irregular behavior or actions that suggest the use of prohibited substances or impairment on the job. Managers should notify HR of the violation.
  • Post-accident testing: companies may perform post-incident or post-accident testing if there is a reasonable or probable belief the accident occurred because of impairment.

Employers should contract with a local vendor for any necessary drug and/or alcohol testing. Testing should be done at the expense of the employer, and should be done as soon as reasonably possible when an infraction occurs.

Disciplinary action

Outline that any employee who violates the substance abuse policy may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including immediate termination of employment. Violations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but the company reserves the right to terminate employees without notice, if their actions put themselves, others, or property at risk, even for a first offense.

Employees who refuse to submit to drug tests that have been requested following an accident/incident, or those who refuse testing when a management team member has a reasonable suspicion they have worked while impaired will also be subject to disciplinary action. This action can be up to and including immediate termination, even for a first offense.

Last chance agreements

Although not required by law or under the ADA guidelines, some companies provide a last chance agreement (LCA) provision in their substance abuse policy to accommodate employees who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. These signed agreements allow business to offer staff members a final chance to maintain their employment status under a probationary period that requires routine drug and/or alcohol testing for a predetermined amount of time.

For the safety of your workforce and your business, it’s critically important to have a strong, clear substance abuse policy, to communicate it to all employees and to enforce it immediately, if necessary. For your convenience, attached is a sample substance abuse policy.

Download this sample substance abuse policy that you can customize and use for your workplace.

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