Taking a Stand Against Substance Abuse With a Written Policy Statement

"I was tired of playing God," says Harold Green, co-owner of Chamberlain Contractors, Inc., a paving company in Laurel, Maryland, with 75 employees. Green recalls struggling with how to handle employees who had drug-related problems, often choosing to fire them.

High rates of worker tardiness and absenteeism, typical by products of workplace substance abuse, also were hurting Chamberlain financially. However, the magnitude of the company's problem did not hit home until increased accidents, in particular vehicular accidents, caused the company's workers' compensation premiums and general liability insurance costs to increase 100 percent between 1983 and 1986. In response, Green did what thousands of business owners have been doing throughout the country - he implemented a written substance abuse prevention policy that today has developed into a comprehensive program which includes an employee assistance program (EAP) and drug testing.

The Critical Step

Once a company makes the commitment to take a stand against alcohol and other drug abuse in the workplace, development of a policy that clearly states the company's position is the next, critically important step.

Despite what you may hear or read, there is no such thing as a "model" policy that will fit all companies' needs. With an issue as potentially controversial as a workplace substance abuse program, boilerplate policies are an invitation for disaster -- and legal troubles. Just as all companies are different, all policies will be different, at least somewhat. Much depends on your company's experience with substance abuse, as well as your business' location, resources, circumstances, and overall needs.

To determine exactly what your policy should contain, consider taking the following steps. First, conduct an assessment to determine your company's needs. This may be accomplished as informally as simply talking with several employees about perceived needs. For example, you may have already identified that a problem exists, but how widespread is the problem? Is drug dealing taking place? Has safety become a concern? What about employee theft? Is the problem isolated to a specific work unit or location? How has substance abuse impacted the cost of doing business, such as health care insurance costs and workers' compensation premiums?

Next, consider creating a policy task force consisting of several employees from throughout the company. If your company is large enough, include supervisors and line workers from various departments in addition to upper management. If you have only five employees, you may decide to include all of them. You'll find that just about everyone has something significant to contribute as you establish a policy that will undoubtedly affect everyone on your payroll -- and beyond. Besides, as employees take part in the development of the policy, they gain a sense of ownership for it, which increases the chances of winning their support.

Once you have consulted everyone, you are ready to begin actually writing the policy. Though you may want to seek the guidance of an attorney with workplace substance abuse program expertise, your policy need not contain elaborate legal wording. In fact,just the opposite is better. Simply worded, straight-forward, and concise language will increase the likelihood that all your employees and job applicants will understand the policy and be willing to abide by it.

Remember, however, that the policy is where your commitment to a substance abuse program will be stated for all to see. Be direct. Use active language to convey the company's policy. Obligations and responsibilities should be stated without ambiguity so as to avoid the possibility of confusion or misunderstandings.

Common Components of a Policy

Although no two policies are exactly alike, all should contain certain common components. Why you are implementing a policy, what the policy prohibits, and what the consequences are for any policy violations should make up the core of your written statement.

Why You Are Implementing a Policy

There are many good reasons for creating your policy. Chief among them is safety - the safety of your workers, your customers and clients, and the general public. This is particularly true if the work being performed is of a safety-sensitive nature.

Other common reasons could be to improve productivity; to control the costs of doing business, such as health care insurance, workers' compensation, and accident insurance premiums; to increase the overall health and well-being of employees and their fami lies and help them with their problems; and to minimize employee theft and other wasteful behaviors. It is not uncommon for many companies to state that they are required by one or more federal or state government regulations to implement a policy. Additionally, other program components may also be required, such as drug or alcohol testing. These should be described later in the policy statement.

What the Policy Prohibits

What types of drug or alcohol use are considered violations of your company's policy will, in part, be determined by the input from your task force. While it may be obvious that all illegal drug use on company time will be prohibited, what will the policy say concerning off-duty use, criminal drug convictions, and being at work under the influence of illegal drugs even though the use took place elsewhere?

Also, how will the policy address alcohol use? Alcohol is legal and, in many circles, commonly used and accepted. It is not uncommon for a company to serve alcohol at company functions or to reimburse employees' travel or sales expenses that include alcohol consumption. However, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in America. When measuring the impact of substance abuse on your company, ignoring the role of alcohol is almost like ignoring the problem altogether.

It is fully within the rights of a company to require its employees to report to work fit for duty. It also is completely appropriate to prohibit any employee from purchasing, manufacturing, transferring, using, or possessing illicit drugs while on company business. This includes work performed off company premises. You may also prohibit employees from being at work under the influence of illegal drugs and from abusing legal substances, such as prescription drugs or alcohol.

The more detail contained in the policy the better. With the members of the task force, think of every possible scenario that should be discussed in the policy.

What the Consequences Are for Violations of the Policy

Simply put, any violations of the company policy will result in disciplinary action up to, and including, termination. Depending on the other elements of your program, this may be all that you need to say. The purpose of this section of the policy is to make it clear that employees will be held accountable for their substance abuse-related behavior.

You may also wish to describe the progressive disciplinary measures that your policy will include. For example, will first-time offenders be allowed a second chance? Will a second chance be conditioned on participation in some type of treatment or counseling program? If so, how are referrals to employee assistance services made and what are the consequences if employees refuse to get help?

Other Elements

Your policy should describe all of the program's elements and what is expected of your employees. The common components of a program that should be discussed in the policy typically include supervisors' responsibilities, employee drug education/awareness opportunities, employee assistance, and drug and/or alcohol testing.

Of primary concern are employee assistance and drug and/or alcohol testing. For employees who need help and are willing to accept it, some form of assistance should be made available. Though a complete, in-house EAP is not always an option for a company, the services that an EAP would provide are widely available. Companies have the option of joining an EAP consortium with other businesses, contracting individually with an outside provider, subscribing to a toll-free hotline service that employees and their dependents can utilize, or providing information on local programs that employees can pursue on their own. Regardless of the type of assistance being provided, the availability of such assistance should be stated in your policy.

Regarding testing, the policy should describe how and under what circumstances employees may be tested for drugs and alcohol. If the company will test employees after accidents, when being transferred or promoted, when there is reason to suspect drug use, or on a random basis, a full explanation should be part of the policy. The consequences of a positive drug or alcohol test should also be explained.


Your written policy statement is your opportunity to express clearly your position on employee substance abuse. For some workers, the knowledge that the company is active on the issue and that they will be held accountable for their behavior is enough to deter future substance abuse. For others, knowing that their company is aware of the problem and is trying to respond to it will strengthen their commitment to being loyal and productive workers. Still others who may be struggling with a loved one's substance abuse problems will appreciate the opportunity to obtain support and assistance through their company.

Eight years after implementing his substance abuse program, Harold Green refers to it as a "profit center" for Chamberlain. Green says the company has seen significant reductions in workers' compensation costs because there are now fewer accidents and fewer claims being filed. In 1988, for example, 65 Chamberlain employees filed $96,000 in workers' compensation claims; in 1991, 60 employees filed claims that totaled $22,000. From 1992 through the first part of 1994, Chamberlain had gone more than 900 days without a workplace-related accident.

Regarding his comprehensive substance abuse program, Green says that he spends a total of approximately $7,500 each year, an annual per employee cost of about $36. He estimates savings from the program to be in excess of $120,000 annually in decreased workers' compensation and insurance premiums alone. "To me, $120,000 is a significant amount of money to save each year," Green says. Employers should focus on the long-term savings they'll see by implementing a drug-free workplace program and not on the short-term costs of setting it up."

Much good can be accomplished by establishing a substance abuse program, and it all starts with a written policy statement.

How to Get Help

To obtain additional information regarding the development of a substance abuse policy for your workplace, you may wish to contact the following:

The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)

NCADI is a national resource for information on the latest research results, popular press and scholarly journal articles, videos, prevention curricula, print materials, program descriptions, and state-level contacts. (1-800-729-6686)

The Drug-Free Workplace Helpline

The Drug-Free Workplace Helpline is a toll-free service funded by the Federal Government's Department of Health & Human Services to provide individualized technical assistance to businesses of all sizes and unions on the development and implementation of comprehensive substance abuse workplace programs. (1-800-843-4971)

The Substance Abuse Information Database (SAID)

SAID is an easy way for business owners, human resource managers, and trade and business groups to learn about alcohol and other drugs in the workplace. The database is designed to be responsive to the needs of small and medium sized businesses.

>U.S. Department of Labor
Last Updated: November 6, 1998