Avoiding the Ethical Slippery Slope in Workplace Decisions
Do Accounting Firms and Professional Staff view the Ethical Environment Differently?

An Alcohol and Substance Abuse-free Workplace

The Ethics of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Workplace Policies

From time to time I receive a reply to one of my blogs from a student who is fulfilling a course requirement. The following blog by A More is a response to my blog on substance abuse in the workplace. I am posting the reply in full because it hits the mark on key ethics issues related to such policies.

Hi Steven: My posting is part of an assignment I am doing for Business Ethics. Love your work. In saying concerned employers should address the issue of “an alcohol and substance abuse-free workplace” within their code of ethics, we must consider if this is a reality for employers? I would suspect that at least for many small businesses it is not.

So what is a code of ethics and is it the best approach? For some it is a set of guidelines designed to detail acceptable behaviours (“What is a Code,”n.d.), whereas others define it as a guide which expresses organisational values used to develop and maintain a profession (The Open Polytechnic, 2013, p.30). The Ethics Resource Centre clarifies this discrepancy, explaining that a code of ethics looks at organizational standards and values, but is often used interchangeably with code of conduct which more specifically looks at behaviours, “the violation of which would result in disciplinary action” (“Ethics glossary,”2009).

My suggestion is that these issues would be better raised within a code of conduct, which is probably more relevant to small business employers - the majority of employers in New Zealand (“Survey Overview,”2005). That code of conduct could include detail around two key themes: that it is a breach of contract to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at work; and it is a breach of contract to bring to or have alcohol or drugs in the workplace.

In today’s dynamic environment, with new synthetic drugs being continually developed there is a challenge to remain aware of and therefore specify which drugs a workplace will not tolerate. There is also the question of medically prescribed drugs – no employer should have the right to breach an individual’s privacy or medical care by requiring to know what prescription drugs an employee takes for their health or have the ability to affect the decision of which prescription drugs an employee takes – that is determined by a qualified medical practitioner. This leads me to believe that it is not always practical or key to specify the substance, unless it is an illegal drug, rather it is the impact that substance has on the impairment of job performance and behaviour.

Some parties argue that an individual’s privacy of their personal life risks being breached (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2013, p.7) by drug testing and that it is for little gain as impaired performance will be obvious anyway. But an employer cannot just randomly claim someone is affected by drugs at work, you have to verify presence or use by an independent party, namely an accredited laboratory – only that information will stand up in an employment court. How would an employee feel if they were suspended or sacked on unverified information?

How does an organization committing to ethical behavior, resolve the focal issue of drugs and alcohol impact at work? And how distinct is this in comparison to others, that it requires a distinctly different methodology for dealing with it. I see there are two distinct high level issues around the drugs and alcohol in the workplace, the first being the influence and impairment of performance and the second the presence of them in the workplace. Both of these apply, regardless of an employee’s position within the company or whether use is social or addiction.

The presence of substances (illegal drugs and alcohol) in the workplace can be more easily specified, as the employer has the right to know what is on their site and indeed has a clear responsibility and ethical duty to control this. But the topic of the influence of substances and impaired performance is less clear. Any individual has the right to privacy around their person and body, they are the ones who control that not the employer, but what the employer should be able to influence is the impact of that body on the workplace. In looking at causative factors for impaired performance (and judgement) it can be equally dangerous for a tired employee to be operating equipment, performing financial calculations, making strategic decisions, operating on patients, flying a plane, driving a car. In all of these it is the potential impact of the degree of impairment that results from whatever the cause of the impairment, be it drugs, alcohol, tiredness, emotional distress or sickness that is critical.

And I agree with you that work needs to be done by employers to address concerns, but I raise the question of why this is isolated for drugs and alcohol. Workplace drug testing may be appropriate where there is due cause, but so too would a medical assessment be appropriate if it was considered a pilot was suicidal. A comprehensive and transparent system needs to be part of the workplace culture and should include employee support and education which may include lifestyle changes. This crosses the border into individual’s privacy and how far the employer can expect to be actively or passively involved in this area. Passive involvement could for example include providing counselling for employees, but on a confidential basis with no expectation of the employer having access to the details of that consultation.

What the employer should be able to have an expectation of, in line with the contract between employee and employer for performance, productivity and service (DesJardins & Duska,2001,p 284), is that the employee will return to the expected levels for these. DesJardins also argues amphetamines can enhance performance, but does that necessarily imply enhanced quality or productivity of work? It could for example just mean an increased state of awareness, even hyperawareness, that could be dangerous, so again it must tie back to impairment of expected performance.

Any organization making a “commitment to ethical behavior” must decide which ethical theory to use. Under utilitarianism, having a substance free workplace would maximise good and minimize harm, similarly Kantian would argue it is an employer’s moral obligation to ensure such an environment. Virtue ethics would see the action derived from care for all employees. On a day to day basis, employers would not trace their thinking back to ethics theories, more so to their own values and goals.

I agree in creating the underlying culture, but in addition we need specific criteria together with the rationale behind them that are communicated and actively practiced within an organization around all factors that affect performance and how these situations will be approached.

Guest Blog written by A More (amjconsulting@xtra.co.nz) on January 22, 2014