Is the UK too complacent in its attitude to drug testing?
Drug abuse is an endemic problem of modern societies, and one which many companies - in their own interests - are seeking to tackle. In certain industries testing for drugs is obviously standard. Most airlines, for example, want to be sure that pilots are no higher than the planes they fly. But although an accepted precaution in some instances, might testing be a pointless invasion of privacy in others?
Heavy industrials such as Shell, BP and Texaco take the same view as the airlines. 'All employees may be required to undergo tests from time to time, especially in high risk areas,' says a Shell spokesman. At the other end of the spectrum, there are industries - most notoriously certain sectors of the media - where, if a boss quizzes his underlings about their illicit habits, it's as likely as not he's after a little chemical assistance himself.
Between these extremes, there's a broad swathe of companies for whom employee drug use could present problems. Should a financial services company test its employees? A drug-influenced blunder could cost it millions.
Similarly a legal practice might find a pot-smoking lawyer rather relaxed about the outcome of his cases. In any number of areas, it's arguable that the substance using employee could adversely affect company fortunes - and it's extremely unlikely that he or she listed such nefarious pastimes on a CV.
The zeal for testing shown by US companies has yet to cross the Atlantic though there have been moves in the same direction. The members' association at Lloyds called for random testing for drugs and alcohol. In the event, the idea was rejected as unworkable. 'We had never seen there being a problem and testing would be very difficult to enforce,' says a Lloyds spokesman. 'All the "employees" work for themselves or other people.' There are some businesses, such as the US-owned bank, New Chase, that have adopted positive policies. Finding its human resources strategy 'out of kilter with society' it has implemented measures to create a 'substance abuse free environment'.
Other banks are said to be considering tests. According to Tina Hudson, practice manager at City Medical Services, which provides drug testing for businesses, the practice looks set to grow. 'We look after corporate clients and there's certainly been an increase in interest, linked to a general awareness that drug abuse is widespread. We have clients in companies across the board and though they're mainly banks and financials, solicitors and others have shown interest.' Alan Howard, deputy managing director at Unilabs, concurs: We've seen significant growth in this area of our business'. But he adds that the type of testing that's appropriate depends on the individual employer.
Not surprisingly there is opposition to testing. Liberty, the civil rights group, is against testing generally - and specifically when safety is not at stake. 'If a company starts testing its secretaries, then clearly the issue is one of personal privacy,' says spokesperson Atiya Lockwood. Naturally Hudson differs: 'I don't think privacy's at stake. It's not an invasive test, and the number of positive results justify testing. I don't think that anyone can say that what they do in their free time won't affect their work.'
But while some may be showing degrees of interest, British employers in the main seem reluctant to institute formal testing. 'Schroders has no policy of random testing but reserves the right to ask people to have an examination if appropriate. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future,' says personnel director, Elizabeth Warren. Price Waterhouse does not test and has no plans to do so.
No doubt the field will continue to be divided. The present lack of concern shown by big City firms might be considered reassuring. Others might think it complacent.