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Program enforcement when workers are not in the office

(September 2020) Operating a best-practice, comprehensive drug-free workplace (DFWP) program comes with a lot of rules – which is actually a good thing.  Clearly articulating expectations around alcohol and other drug use increases the likelihood you’ll maintain a safe and productive workforce, free from the effects of substance misuse.

But there can be a downside to having a lot of rules: enforcement.  Let’s face it, if you can’t enforce your program’s rules, it’s hard to operate an effective program.  And this issue becomes acute when employees are decentralized, working off-site in the field, at home or traveling for business, particularly if they are on their own without direct supervision.

While the majority of your employees likely follow the rules of your DFWP policy, there is a chance someone could make a mistake or decide not to, jeopardizing their safety and ability to do their job:

  • Sam decides, since he’s working at home, to take a prescribed medication that comes with a warning that it could make him drowsy. He chooses not to say anything to his supervisor about that, justifying it’s OK since he’s not going to be driving.
  • Sally drinks a glass of wine while checking her work emails after a long day of traveling.
  • Even though Sean knows his company’s policy prohibits the use of marijuana (including medical marijuana), he justifies using it to deal with some back pain since he isn’t going into the office any time soon.
  • With a drink in hand and no consideration of her company’s rules around alcohol consumption while “on the job,” Sarah joins a virtual happy hour she was invited to by a client.

Beyond enforcing your program rules around substance misuse with a decentralized workforce, you also need to consider procedural issues like post-accident protocol or referring someone for assistance:

  • Steven backs into a car at the post office by rushing to mail a work package but forgets to report this incident.
  • Sandra’s random drug test came back positive so she needs to be sent for an assessment, but she is out of town on a job and can’t come in to sign the paperwork.

Clearly define when the rules apply

One issue that comes into play when employees are working remotely is clearly defining when the rules apply – that is, the definition of “on-the-job”.  This may seem like a simple concept, but the definition carries a lot of weight and is at the core of most drug-free workplace rules and procedures.

Think about it, when people come into a business location to perform their tasks, it’s pretty clear that they are on-the-job.  But outside of the office, the line between work and personal time may not be as clear. Does on-the-job only count if it’s “during business hours”?  If so, that would mean an employee could technically drink – and even be under the influence – while catching up on client emails at home after the official end of the workday. What about defining on-the-job as “when performing work duties”? Does that mean when an employee gets into a minor accident over their lunch break it doesn’t get reported?

Because the goal of a DFWP program is to maintain safety, productivity and public image, a best-practice approach is to broadly define “on-the-job” — including any time work duties are being conducted and account for work adjacent scenarios (e.g., breaks, work-sponsored functions, business travel).

Educate to prevent issues from arising

Ideally, the primary objective of your drug-free workplace program is to prevent the misuse of substances.  And the key to prevention is a focus on education.  Employees can’t follow a policy if they don’t understand it or are unclear about when it applies.  Particularly important for employees who are new to remote working, it is imperative that they understand what is okay and what is not allowable according to the policy.  It’s equally important to remind all remote employees about program-related procedures and expectations (e.g., what do to if there is an accident when working from home, traveling between meetings or while away for business).

Provide supervisors enforcement tools

As previously stated, enforcement is vital to a successful program.  This is where your supervisors play an incredibly important role. They are your program’s eyes and ears and need to be keenly aware of how your program’s rules play out with remote employees and grounded in their responsibilities.

Since supervisors typically rely on what they can see, hear and smell to raise concerns about possible program violations, managing from afar can be challenging. Therefore, staying in touch with employees might take some creative thought. Depending on how your business operates, it might make sense to use video calling technology whenever possible (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Facetime) to enable supervisors to notice any physical or behavioral changes with their employees. It might also be helpful to make periodic, unscheduled check-ins.  Not only does this provide a chance to see how someone is doing, but it’s an opportunity to build additional rapport.

What do you need to enforce your program with remote workers?

Regardless of whether your organization has had remote workers for years or is new to this concept, you should regularly review your policy, program and operations to ensure they address issues relevant to your business, are being properly enforced and, of course, are up-to-date regarding any law changes (e.g., marijuana laws).

It’s also helpful to look at your drug-free workplace program in relationship to other policies and procedures.  For example, maybe you require routine one-on-ones between employees and supervisors.  If they aren’t done in person, using video technology not only helps with drug-free enforcement but can bring a new element to those one-on-ones.

Having remote workers doesn’t have to make program enforcement hard, but it does require some additional thought and focus to make sure the program is followed and enforced as it should be.