Got a negative reasonable suspicion alcohol test result, now what?
(Winter 2018) Real Life Incidents: Working Partners® Consortium members receive phone support and consultation about drug-free workplace (DFWP) issues – a benefit we term “troubleshooting.” Here is a brief description of a troubleshoot and our response/suggestions.
We received a call from an experienced Program Administrator (PA), indicating she had a unique, first-time experience. She described having reports of an employee coming to work smelling of alcohol today and on at least three previous occasions. The situations were handled at the supervisory level with general reminders to the entire crew to be mindful of their alcohol use during off-duty hours, however the employee was not confronted directly. In addition, this employee’s job performance had been declining (decreased productivity and quality of work). Neither the odor or the performance decline had been documented or reported to the Program Administrator until the day she called our office.
Once the Program Administrator became involved, she reviewed the company’s reasonable suspicion checklist, gathered more details from the supervisor, talked with the owner and directly observed the employee. Because of the time it took to complete all these tasks, the decision to transport the employee for a reasonable suspicion alcohol test occurred nearly six hours after the supervisor initially detected the odor.
As such, the result of the alcohol breath test was negative, leaving the PA and her supervisor confused about how to proceed. They contacted us to walk through next steps given their previous concerns and the negative alcohol test result.
Even though the alcohol test was negative, the organization still has at least two issues to address and neutralize with the employee – the smell of what seemed to be alcohol on his breath and his performance decline.
As we walked through the scenario with the PA, four questions/concerns were identified:
- Where was the employee while management was discussing how to handle the situation?
- Was the organization wrong to send the employee for an alcohol test since the result was negative?
- Are there other tools for finding a resolution outside of an alcohol test?
- When should supervisors involve the PA?
They’ve got a situation. Where’s the employee?
Up until the time of the test, the employee had been on the job. The combination of declining performance and multiple reports of smelling alcohol (or something like it) on the employee might have made a case for removing the employee from the job while they had internal discussions on the next steps. This is particularly important if the employee performs safety sensitive work or is public-facing.
The test was negative. Were they wrong to test?
By all accounts, the supervisor and PA had reviewed their procedures, documented their concerns and observations, and felt they had reason to believe the employee could be under the influence of alcohol. Naturally, they were confused when they received the result and wondered – maybe we shouldn’t have tested him.
What could have caused a negative test?
- Too much time had passed between when the odor was detected and when the employee submitted to the alcohol test. (Remember, nearly six hours passed between detection and test.)
- Something besides alcohol could be causing the odor (i.e., hygiene issue, medical condition).
- Breathalyzer or technician error.
A drug/alcohol test is only one tool available for employers to assess behaviors and circumstances associated with reasonable suspicion.
So… are there other tools?
Sometimes a drug or alcohol test isn’t warranted or an organization still has concerns after receiving a negative result. To help neutralize concerns, they could consider making a referral to the Employee Assistance Program or a community agency and provide details of the current situation to the assessor. The assessor would combine information supplied by the organization with details gathered from an employee interview to determine next steps. He or she might identify a substance-related issue impacting the declining performance and/or odor or maybe personal issue that needs attention. Additionally, if there’s concern the odor and/or performance issues are health related, the organization might consider referring the employee to a medical professional.
For future reference, when should the PA get involved?
An organization’s PA can serve as the hub of information and be able to see patterns from a bird’s eye view. Therefore, the sooner the PA is involved, the better. That involvement might vary from reviewing and storing documentation provided by the supervisor to briefly discussing what a supervisor or employee experienced or taking over the management of the situation.
For this organization, the PA might have been able to help the supervisor put all the pieces together or raise the red flag of concern sooner (e.g., transport for test, make a referral, conduct one-on-one conversation, etc.), therefore limiting the amount of time between the first instance and any resolution.
Some tips for improving this process:
- Provide supervisors with adequate drug-free workplace program training (how to recognize signs and symptoms of substance use) and empower them in their role.
- Regularly review procedures for reporting concerns (monthly reminders on what to do, who to tell and how/where to document regarding various topics).
- Be sure your PA or their designee is accessible to all staff, especially those in the field or working second and third shift.
Sometimes what smells like alcohol, isn’t alcohol. Sometimes a reasonable suspicion test is negative. Sometimes there’s more to the story than what’s on the surface. Because an organization might not have all the facts in front of them, it’s important to have the foundation – policy, training, education, procedures, testing, assistance – to assist in decision making.
As a member of Working Partners® Consortium, don’t forget your access to this troubleshooting service. Be safe, not sorry!
Call Working Partners® Consortium at 614-337-8200 or 866-354-3397.
DISCLAIMER: This publication is designed to provide accurate information regarding the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that those involved in the publication are not engaged in rendering legal counsel. If legal advice is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.