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Chris Bell

Guide to reasonable suspicion at work



Employees working under the influence of drink or drugs can be a danger to themselves and others. It’s not surprising that employers would want to make sure that staff members maintain a certain level of professionalism.

There are limits to how much an employer can intrude into the private affairs of employees; that is true from a legal perspective, as well as a practical one. You will get a reputation for having a bad workplace environment if you’re too intrusive. You need to keep a good relationship with your employees and having a clear and fair approach to workplace concerns is essential.

However, there can be good reasons for monitoring employee sobriety. If you operate a business that has to meet regulatory compliance, you may be responsible for some degree of monitoring. Some workplaces have more likelihood of accidents if employees aren’t fully alert and responsive. In other cases, it may be more of a concern if employees are completing work inadequately, not keeping up with workload, or interacting poorly with others due to substance misuse.

Reasonable suspicion in the workplace is the measure of when it is appropriate to conduct an investigation into employee sobriety. You don’t want to operate on hearsay or haphazardly. An overactive approach can create a toxic workplace environment where employees feel scrutinised and criticised. It can feed into perceived or actual workplace discrimination. In the worst case, employees may bully one another by trying to spread rumours or damage their colleagues’ reputations.

Reasonable suspicion should be based on factual observations. They include visual observation or other actual evidence of an employee misusing substances. Abnormal or erratic behaviour at work, or significantly poorer performance could be grounds for a reasonable suspicion investigation. Evidence of other illegal substance encounters such as solicitation, sale, or purchase could also be grounds for reasonable suspicion.

If you already have mandatory workplace drug screenings, you may want to review the process and take greater care to rule out falsified results. There are various steps employees could be taking to bypass the system. They could be submitting false or contaminated samples, or supervisors may be knowingly or unknowingly missing steps or not being attentive enough during the process. If not, you may want to do a one-off screening.

Check your workplace policy for expectations around drug-free workplaces and drug screenings and procedure. It may be time to introduce them if they don’t already exist. Even without a full in-house procedure, you can get drug testing done on-demand, with 24 hour drug test results available in many cases, so there’s no excuse from a procedural perspective.

Employees may refuse screening, in which case you need to document your observations that inform the reasonable suspicion investigation. Empirical observations, once documented, inform the employee remediation plan or, in the worst case, form grounds for dismissal. Therefore, it’s very important to document problems based on observable facts in or in the immediate vicinity of the workplace during or immediately preceding or following the shift.

Understanding how to bring reasonable suspicion to investigations in the workplace is important to appropriately respond to potential substance misuse by employees. It not only keeps your investigation and response appropriate, it ensures a healthy and safe workplace for everyone.