Drug Testing Kills Productivity

Drug Testing Kills Productivity

Tom Peters

Most organizations are beset with new challenges — continuous quality
improvement, more flexibility and responsiveness. Uncertainty has
never been greater, as competitors, exchange rates and the prices of
oil and money gyrate daily.

To establish the needed skills and to take advantage of new
uncertainties, we need people committed more than ever before. The
essence of commitment in an ambiguous environment boils down to one
word: trust. That’s why the increasing use of drug testing as a pre-
employment screen or in search of a problem concerns me so deeply —
no matter how it is done, this sort of invasive drug testing erodes

As the economist Robert Reich says in his new book, Tales of a New
trust was not required in the stable
environment. But when everything is up for grabs, then burdensome
rules and adversarial, legalistic dealings hopelessly stifle the
organization’s responsiveness and any chance for success.

At a time when we simply must increase trust, drug testing (other than
after a severe performance problem has been identified)
threatens to destroy productivity — a far cry from the boon to
productivity its proponents claim that it is.

Of course, the issue of drug-test reliability is valid. But for a
moment let’s brush it aside, assuming (I don’t, I must add) that
eventually science might produce reliable and inexpensive tools, if
the market demand for them is there. A more serious problem is that
the results of drug tests in no way, except in extreme cases, indicate
impairment of on-the-job performance.

Still more troubling is that the hubbub over drugs, as usual, ignores
the more serious issue of alcohol abuse. Besides the long- term job-
performance problems among alcohol abusers, a recent study indicates
that it is associated with 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47
percent of all industrial accidents. A poll of human resource experts
by the magazine Training found that 100 percent ranked
alcohol over drugs as a more “pervasive workplace problem.”

The same issue of Training conducted extensive interviews of
its own Human Resource Hall of Fame members, generally older (and
perhaps dispositionally more conservative) people-development experts.
Yet without exception, the experts — hardly mincing words — linked
the relationship between drug testing to trust and productivity.

For example, consultant George Odiorne commented acidly on Attorney
General Edwin Meese’s endorsement of drug testing. Odiorne contends,
“Meese is proposing that the entire country be turned into a Theory X
[authoritarian] society: Nobody is to be trusted until proven
innocent. It’s going to destroy [the] culture we’ve been [trying to
build] in organizations — trusting people, treating them as if
they’re responsible.” The nation’s respected human resource guru,
according to Training‘s annual poll, Robert Mager, is even more to the
point: “Even if the CEO unzips his fly and stands first in line, this
is going to destroy a lot of trust. Corporate loyalty already has been
eroding over the years … this might even drive people back into the
arms of unions again.”

Another hall of famer, Professor Malcolm Knowles, insists, “A critical
factor influencing morale in general, and productivity in particular,
is trust … random drug testing seems awfully high on the scale of
trust damagers.” Consultant Thomas Gilbert agrees: “Even if their
wildest imaginings were true, eliminating drugs and alcohol would
boost [national] productivity maybe one- tenth of one percent. [As
productivity boosters] drug tests make about as much sense as
personality tests … we should be attending to the big, high leverage
factors. You want a 200 percent increase in productivity?” Gilbert
lists several prescriptions, headed by pay for performance, extensive
skill training and elimination of demeaning, trust-destroying rules
and regulations.

Training concludes, “If you treat employees as if you believe they are
honest, trustworthy people who want to do a good job, most of them
will behave like honest, trustworthy people who want to do a good job.
If you treat them as if you believe they are thieves, incompetents and
malingerers, constantly on the lookout for ways to abuse their
position, many will, indeed, start looking for ways to abuse their

Ralph Stayer, president of Johnsonville Sausage Company in Sheboygan
Falls, Wisconsin, profiled in an earlier column, finds that his
employees provide better screening than even the most sophisticated
tests. “If an employee’s performance is affected, other employees
catch on quickly. Workers won’t tolerate it.” explains Stayer, whose
firm ties everyone’s compensation to profits. Stayer adds, “Having
these tests is treating a symptom of the problem, not the problem —
which is that leadership is not adequate to provide an atmosphere
where those things don’t happen.”

I agree with Stayer. The best tool for recognizing drug problems
remains the eyeballs of concerned and in-touch supervisors and peers.
Use these, and then provide counseling and help as needed — reserving
separation only for those who don’t come to terms with their problem.

Drug screening in search of a problem, except perhaps for testing
inhabitants of missile silos, is downright stupid. It will cause much
more harm than good. Let’s worry about building trust, not destroying

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

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