Employment-Related Drug Testing: Idiosyncratic Characteristics and Issues

By Arthur, Winfred, Jr.; Doverspike, Dennis | Public Personnel Management, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Employment-Related Drug Testing: Idiosyncratic Characteristics and Issues


Arthur, Winfred, Jr., Doverspike, Dennis, Public Personnel Management


In recent years, the pervasiveness of drug and alcohol abuse in the United States has become a growing concern. In an attempt to minimize the potential costs and ramifications of substance abuse, organizations have initiated programs of both pre-hire and incumbent drug testing. In the field of personnel and human resource management, many discussions of drug testing have taken a perspective that treats drug testing as analogous to the use of other selection devices such as employment tests. This approach to the consideration of drug testing is predicated on the assumption, implicit or explicit, that drug testing is comparable to other forms of devices for making employment decisions. However, it is important to recognize that there are certain idiosyncratic attributes of drug tests and testing that distinguish them from other predictors and their use. Furthermore, these characteristics can have several important implications for the applicant, employee, human resource practitioner, and organization. Therefore, the objective of this article is to identify and discuss these idiosyncratic characteristics, noting their implications for the enterprise of drug testing and, thereby, sensitizing the public personnel management practitioner to these issues.

Variety of Testing Types

Just as it is problematic to consider drug testing as simply another type of selection device, it would be an oversimplification to treat drug testing as consisting of a homogenous set of procedures. Rather, drug testing represents a broad set of possible interventions or testing mechanisms. Examples of some of the different types of tests used are presented in Table 1. As Table 1 reveals, drug testing uniquely incorporates a wide variety of techniques that differ on several dimensions such as their validity and utility, sophistication and cost, intrusiveness, and acceptance by applicants and incumbents. Furthermore, some of these techniques, such as biochemical tests, are unlikely to be included in a traditional selection battery, but might be included in a pre- or post-hire medical examination. Other methods, such as the use of personality tests, may simply represent a new use for a traditional selection instrument.

Negative Reactions and Resistance to Drug Testing

Negative reactions from applicants or incumbents may accompany all types of testing.(1) However, drug testing seems especially likely to lead to resistance. This type of testing may have low face validity for some individuals who do not believe, for instance, that weekend substance use affects their job performance during the week. For others, it may represent a severe intrusion into, and violation of, privacy.

Recent research has confirmed the frequent presence of negative incumbent, applicant, and prospective employee reactions to testing.(2) Some factors that have been found to influence employee reactions include: job characteristics (e.g., likelihood of danger due to drug impairment);(3) type of drug used(;4) the personnel action taken against employees testing positive,(5) the chance to appeal; the availability of advance notice; and whether random or for-cause testing is implemented.(6)

Another unique feature of drug testing that has been found to be associated with fairly strong negative reactions is its routine and repeated use for post-employment purposes. This characteristic is in contrast to most other predictors which are typically used for pre-employment purposes only. The negativity associated with post-employment drug testing is highlighted by the results of a survey of railroad workers, in which Hanson(7) found that 63 percent of respondents thought that pre-employment testing was justifiable, but only 16 percent agreed that random testing of current employees was fair.

Furthermore, unlike other testing procedures that may require limited justification to test takers, this issue of negativity underscores the importance of explaining the merits of a drug testing program to employees. …

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