The new corporate nanny state

Last updated 09:44 17/06/2010

Imagine you're a member of the professional classes: a scientist, a lawyer, an accountant or an analyst. Or, God forbid, a journalist.

Now think back on the last 30 days and ask yourself whether you've engaged in behaviour that might put your employment at risk.

Perhaps you were at a party, a reunion of old mates, an occasion to reminisce about days past while Elton John or Nirvana blared over the stereo system.

Maybe in a fit of bonhomie you even shared a joint, as people sometimes do. That un-Clintonesque inhalation may have jeopardised your future employment.

Reefer, as my father calls it, stays in the system for 30 days and a standard drug and alcohol urine test will reveal the presence of cannabis.

Irrespective of the fact it was last month and in your own time, you're down the road, sunshine.

Drug and alcohol testing, including random checks, are on the rise and it's not just the ''safety sensitive'' occupations that are now under corporate scrutiny.

Two professionals of my acquaintance were recently asked to pee in a cup. They were fortunate; they were warned of the upcoming indignity.

For one this posed no problem, save embarrassment. The other had to alter his regular behaviour in order to deliver a clear result.

Madison Recruitment's Justin Pipe confirms the trend, saying increasing numbers of professionals are being asked to submit to drug and alcohol testing as part of companies' overall risk management policy.

Usually, Pipe says, it is firms that already have identified ''safety sensitive'' areas, such as operating heavy machinery or onerous driving requirements, that institute such intrusive policy.

On the basis that it is unfair to single out only one employee group, these businesses demand that all workers submit to regular drug and alcohol tests, he says.

Hays' Jason Walker disagrees, noting that such practices are still largely confined to the construction and roading sectors but, he says, testing in these areas are on the rise.

Greg Lloyd, Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union general counsel, sides with Pipe. His members, irrespective of the nature of their work, are being asked to provide urine samples for testing.

The EPMU took unsuccessful court action against Air New Zealand over testing of pilots and, Lloyd says, the airline now extends its policy to all members.

Recreational cannabis use is rife in New Zealand.

There are, according to Auckland University's Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit, about 1.5 million pot smokers in this country, about 18 per cent of people aged 15-45.

More than half the adult population have inhaled at one time or another.

Illegality aside, it is uncontroversial to assert that what people do in their own home and in their own time is their business, not that of the Government or their employer.

So, corporate examination of people's personal lives by drug testing represents, at the very least, a gross invasion of privacy.

There is also an issue of fairness.

Cannabis stays in the system for up to 30 days and a positive urine test does not mean an employee is under the influence; it means that at some point in the last month they have consumed an illegal drug.

But many New Zealanders, as Lloyd notes, are appalled at the prospect of people working when cannabis is in their system.

For these people, ''presence equals impairment and impairment equals unsafe'', he says.

Yet how unsafe is cannabis or other drugs for that matter? Historically, military personal have been furnished with methamphetamine to combat tiredness and improve performance in the field.

Numerous studies testing the impact of pot smoking on driving have found no impact on driving ability as users compensate by driving more slowly and carefully, while a few papers find impaired driving.

Drug testing is often justified on the basis of reducing ACC employer contributions, yet these are set by the accident record for the sector. And accidents are, as often as not, a result of oppressive workplace management.

There is a lot of research into the ''medicalisation'' of the workforce, where long hours and an ever increasing workload result in injury, such as occupational overuse syndrome, or excessive drinking in order to combat stress.

Instead of addressing the root cause of these problems  better management of shifts and workload  employers resort to a medical cure to reduce the incidence of OOS or testing to stop drug and alcohol use.

Nobody is arguing in favour of smoking on the job but workplace drug testing is being extended way beyond its initial, although dubious, safety justification.

If it were the Government rather than private companies implementing such policy there would be a public outcry at nanny state intrusion.

Perhaps this can be seen as another example of outsourcing government functions to the private sector.

Welcome to the new corporate nanny state.

Nick Smith is a senior financial journalist.

- The Independent

Post a comment
Random   #1   10:03 am Jun 17 2010

Yep, it's pretty retarded that you can be fired for something that you did in your own time that won't affect your performance. Lucky for me I think the management team at my work are fairly liberal in that sense and are as likely to fail a test as me.

Karen   #2   11:42 am Jun 17 2010

I agree. I think that urine testing can only be appropriate if you can prove that the levels tested in some way equate to a degree of impairment such that you can't do your job safely/adequately. Similar to there being threshold levels for drink driving.

The Trickster   #3   12:09 pm Jun 17 2010

Random, its not often I agree with you, but I agree strongly on this one.

What I choose to do in my own time is my own business and nobody elses. The only time it becomes someone elses business is if it directly affects them.

Graeme   #4   12:27 pm Jun 17 2010

Hmmmm "about 1.5 million pot smokers in this country, about 18 per cent of people aged 15-45." Not sure the math stacks up.

Alan Wilkinson   #5   12:41 pm Jun 17 2010

If an employee refuses to submit to such testing on the basis it is an invasion of privacy and an unacceptable variation of the employment contract will subsequent dismissal give rise to a valid claim for damages?

S M   #6   01:02 pm Jun 17 2010

Besides the matter of privacy invasion, testing for illegal drugs such as cannabis is completely counter-intuitive to a robust, reasonable and just society. Every adult needs to be clear that illegal drug use does not automatically equate to drug abuse or misuse. Such prejudice is a product of drug criminalisation. The real issue here is the Misuse of Drugs Act; which considering the fact that there are 1.5 million citizens in NZ smoking cannabis for example, is clearly not doing what it was intended to do and in fact only causes greater harm (greater disrespect for the law, mandatory drug testing, wasting police time, creation of a black market which happily supplies drugs to children, etc). When alcohol is clearly demonstratable as the more impairment causing and toxic (but legally sold in supermarkets!)drug, then we need to replace current policy with something that actually works to minimise overall harms. Evidence shows that prohibition doesn't do this at all.

Employer   #7   01:24 pm Jun 17 2010

First I am an employer outside New Zealand and second we don't do drug tests. They are not a big problem anyway and I doubt any of my umteen odd employees are into it. With that said you say it is uncontroversial that what you do at home is your own business. Not really. What you do at home has in some cases an impact at work. We have had to fire staff for turning up drunk or with a hang over. I have had serious words with some staff about partying out late - in their own time - and then looking tired and sleepy the next day. In the service industry that is bad. Customers complain. Now if staff are suffering poor performance, ie they are lathargic, blurry eyed or just making mistakes I have to consider what they did outside work. They didnt get that way in work. Now sometimes they insist they can handle it but they cant. They screw up. They cost us money. Warn them and dump them.

If I thought drugs were a problem I would have no problem doing the tests.

Darth Michael   #8   02:22 pm Jun 17 2010

Kiwi journalists? A "professional" class? hahahahahahaha Maybe, if they ever decide to investigate and report on the REAL dirt in Wellington. Until then, Kiwi journos are little more than two-faced wannabee hacks.

Drug testing.

First things first, if they performed mandatory drug testing on every police officer, half of the force would be out of a job within a month. Similarly, I think we all know that many MPs regularly sit in Parliament while intoxicated after their liquid lunches/dinners (frequently shared with friendly journos). And God knows, Rob Muldoon was drunk (off his face) when he called a snap election in 1984.

Personally, I think it is an horrendous breach of privacy to have a blanket policy requiring all employees to undergo medical testing (drug/alcohol) for an employer. If an employee is showing signs of intoxication, then test him. But, to demand he (it's almost always the males who are asked) submit to a medical test is a clear invasion of his privacy.

(Anyone who does NOT think that being required to drop your trousers, or give blood, raises the issue of peoples' privacy is a dribbling idiot.)

Nic   #9   10:08 pm Jun 17 2010

Where did this guy get the idea that cannabis stays in the urine at a detectable level for 30 days. If you are not a regular user of cannabis it is in there for a similar time as other drugs are between 2 - 6 days. The drug testing is not trying to identify impairment TLNZ vs MUNZ case Dec 2007. Drug testing is a tool to identify those at risk of being impaired and therefore a potential hazard in the workplace. The writer has also obviously been reading the normal website for studies to support cannabis use. Cannabis makes you a safer driver? Really have you heard of impaired divided attention or impaired time distance two major effects on a cannabis user. I could go on but I won't NZ has a huge problem and it is called cannabis and until we can change the slack attitude we have about cannabis we are not going to stop the other overall drug problem we have in NZ. Cannabis is the danger, P is the result.

Alfie   #10   11:36 am Jun 18 2010

@ Nic #9. How can you equate smoking a joint with the risks of taking P? I smoke, have done for almost 20 years, and never in that time have I been tempted to smoke P. The same goes for my friends. The propaganda disseminated about cannabis being a 'gateway' drug is patent nonsense and typical scare mongering. Marijuana smokers are mostly benign and sociable people, and I resent being criminalised for making a choice that can only potentially harm myself. The sooner it is decriminalised and we're allowed to grow it for ourselves, the less we'll be reliant on gangs to supply us.

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