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Virtual Work & Real Drinkin'

COVID-19 propelled corporate America to a yet undiscovered galaxy demanding that employers don their thinking caps regarding employee work locations, processes, team connectivity, accountability, and communication, all while trying to maintain profitability. While many companies have recognized the need for employees to remain on company property (manufacturing, service industries, first responders, hospitals, warehousing, retail, shipping), they also realized that their white-collar counterparts could just as easily work from home. This would ensure social distancing and prove less costly from an overhead standpoint. Great. Let's try this. Let's see how this works...!

Since March 2020, companies discovered that much could get accomplished while employees worked virtually: virtual meetings, office portals providing all the accessibilities of necessary programs, projects, and other tools revolutionized the workspace. Companies got thinking: could this become the new normal (while providing companies true savings on rental office space)? Then came the pluses for employees: dress down day is daily; pjs anyone? You can wash clothes, bake cookies, and have your dog or cat snuggle up on your lap while you toil away. Be at home while all those Amazon packages arrive or, grab yourself a nice cold beer or glass of wine after (or during) that boring weekly staff meeting. Hey, who's going to know? For goodness' sake, it's my travel mug; no one will know the difference and how are they (they employer) going to prove it anyway?

Enter the conundrum called virtual work, a company's drug-free workplace policies, and employee abuse of prohibited substances. I've heard the stories and of how management is struggling to cope. They already have a solid drug-free workplace program with procedures regarding substances in the workplace but stand unprepared for the physical shift from work cubicle or office to the employee's own kitchen table, library, or living room couch. Refrigerators, liquor cabinets, and bar sinks are just around the corner, and, well, employers lament "we just didn't think about that; didn't think employees would take advantage of us in this way..." They ask: "but, how can we confront someone from home?"

It is vital for employers to update their policies and procedures because HOW we are working today (virtually) may easily become the workplace of forever. Employers should construct and distribute to all employees an addendum to their current policy which emphasizes that all policies are still in affect and as it relates to virtual worksites. For management, the trickiest occasion for drug and alcohol testing will be, understandably,  for reasonable suspicion. This is when the manager suspects that an employee may have violated their prohibition against the use of substances while at work. So, can a manager intervene upon an employee suspected of having violated their prohibition even if it's via a virtual platform? Absolutely! Virtual technology keeps improving and seeing one's employee via computer screen should leave little to the imagination. If managers have been effectively trained (at least one hour per year), they should already be proficient in identifying key elements of possible impairment from drugs or alcohol: glazed or bloodshot eyes, slurring words, repeating themselves, unusually passive or aggressive, flushed facial color, deterioration in appearance or personal hygiene, decreased attention span, or memory loss. A manager's observation of the above signs and symptoms won't vary from onsite, with the exception of the smell alcohol or marijuana or seeing paraphernalia.

How to confront: it all boils down to observation, documentation, and ensuring that documentation is contemporaneous to what you observe. In other words, write down what you observe right then and there or soon after. Pow-pow with the powers that be, then bring your concerns virtually to that employee along with a managerial witness. No matter where the employee resides, the discussion needs to occur. Decide then if reasonable suspicion testing is the right path to take and then make arrangements for that employee to get tested.

Here's the next tricky part: once management decides to send the employee for reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol (always both) testing, how will the company safely transport the employee to the closest drug collection site? If a manager is located nearby (no real definition of "close by" but remember it takes just an hour for 1.5 oz of alcohol to leave one's system), then have that manager arrange to pick up and transport the employee to the collection site; then provide transport back home. If a manager is not located close by, then utilize Uber or Lyft; these options are not ideal but NEVER allow the employee to drive themselves to the collection site (or their relative or friend). It is the company's responsibility to do so.

Time and attention to review one's company policy on (at least) a yearly basis will assist those companies who are leaning more heavily on virtual working environments. Over time, it will become more apparent just what will and CAN work for a particular company. The MOST important aspect of this process is to NOT ignore the issues. Those who truly struggle with substance abuse will, unfortunately, abuse your policy and, in any given work environment, statistics don't lie: seven in 10 workers will use drugs at work, so think about the possibilities of someone with a substance use problem working virtually from home!

For information on how to better your workplace policies and procedures regarding drugs and alcohol at work, contact Margie Roop. Been there, done that, worn-out the t-shirt!

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