What is Reasonable Suspicion Drug Testing?

Reasonable Suspicion words on top of pills

Employers lose over $100 billion a year in productivity due to substance abuse, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC). Perhaps as bad or worse than the financial impact of substance abuse, is the personal impact it has on your employees. Supervisors trained in reasonable suspicion decrease chances of productivity loss and ensure workplace safety.

While implementing pre-employment drug screening and random drug testing go a long way to ensure a drug-free workplace, you most likely will still have to confront someone impaired by drugs or alcohol while on the job. How you handle it determines the overall health and safety of your entire workforce. Know the rules for reasonable suspicion drug testing.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

”Reasonable Suspicion” happens when you find evidence of or observe obvious signs of impairment. Impairment isn’t always attributable to substance abuse. Some medical conditions cause “impairment.” A negative drug test rules out use so you can get necessary medical attention for your employee.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse presents several common signs. The better you know your employees, the better you know when they’re just “off.” Some of these common signs include:

  • Physical evidence of illicit substances
  • Patterns of erratic or abnormal behavior and personality changes
  • Disorientation or confusion and inability to complete routine tasks
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene or grooming
  • Poor attendance, unexplained breaks
  • Damage to company property, borrowing money, or theft
  • Withdrawn behavior

What if I suspect substance abuse at work?

Before sending someone for a reasonable suspicion drug test, follow these 5 steps:

Observe behaviors to confirm reasonable suspicion

Before you send an employee for a reasonable suspicion or “for cause” drug test, you must see or smell signs of impairment first-hand. You can’t include something you hear from someone else or stories your employee told about use away from work in your documentation. If someone reports to you that they suspect drug or alcohol impairment, you must make the observation yourself before you act. And you can only test based on the current instance of suspicion, not past observations. You may, however, add past observations to your current documentation.

Confirm reasonable suspicion with another supervisor or manager

If you see first-hand that a safety-sensitive employee seems to be under the influence, you’d ideally want to get at least one other trained supervisor or manager to confirm your observations. If that’s not possible, you want to make sure that the conclusion you’ve drawn is the same as any other trained, experienced supervisor in your position would reasonably conclude based on appearance, behavior, speech or body orders of the employee . Then take that worker off the job immediately. If you’re not dealing with a safety-sensitive issue like driving or operating machinery, we still recommend you remove the employee from their job duties until you can determine the cause for suspicion.

Document reasonable suspicion

Because of the discretionary nature of reasonable suspicion drug screening, you must take careful notes of what you and others have observed. Specific documentation creates a good defense if the incident escalates into a lawsuit. For example, if you write “Bob was angry,” include details about signs of anger. “Bob raised his voice and came within inches of my face, while waving his arms,” provides a vivid picture of the scenario. Giving as much detail as possible answers questions about your documentation before someone asks.

Confront the employee about your suspicions

As discreetly as possible, ask the employee to meet you in a private setting. Calmly and objectively state exactly what you’ve observed yourself (what you saw, smelled or heard that makes you suspicious of current intoxication), then ask something non-threatening to give your employee an opportunity to respond. Always respect the dignity and privacy of your employee. Remember to keep emotions in check and stay objective. Don’t let the employee sidetrack the conversation. Remain calm and stick to your talking points. Explain that a medical examination may be necessary to address the issues discussed, but reasonable suspicion drug testing is necessary to rule out substance abuse.

Send your employee for a reasonable suspicion drug test

Explain to your employee that, based on your notes and observations, you’ve arranged for a reasonable suspicion drug test. Remind him or her of what to expect. DO NOT LET YOUR EMPLOYEE DRIVE TO THE TESTING CENTER! If you aren’t the driver, assign another supervisor or manager – not another employee – to drive. Or ask for a collector to come to you. While alcohol can be detected within 8 hours of use and drugs within 24-32 hours, you want to conduct the drug test as soon as you suspect a reason to do it.  Do not allow your employee to return to safety-sensitive duties while you wait for results.

Common Excuses for Drug or Alcohol Impairment at Work

Most of the time, employees deny impairment of drug and alcohol use while at work. Don’t accept excuses for their behavior. Some common excuses include:

  • “I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
  • “I’m having a reaction to medication.”
  • “I recently stopped taking prescription medication and I’m trying to adjust.”
  • “I’m still hungover from last night.”
  • “I’m just depressed.”

Steer clear of diversions presented by your employee. Remain calm as you reply. If what they say is true, there should be nothing to worry about when they are tested. Your job is to ensure the safety of your employees.

What if My Employee Refuses to Test?

It’s critically important you address refusal to test in a comprehensive drug and alcohol testing policy long before you encounter use. Determine ahead of time what constitutes a refusal to test and the consequences. A refusal to test should be treated as a positive drug test result. If your employee attempts to delay testing, that should also be treated as a refusal to test.

A Comprehensive Drug and Alcohol Testing Policy Ensures Consistency

Businesses regulated by federal or state governments already have comprehensive drug and alcohol testing policies that define reasonable suspicion and the drug testing process. Private businesses get to determine how to handle drug and alcohol testing. Make sure your policy adheres to your state, county and city laws.

We recommend sending a copy of your drug and alcohol testing policy to every current employee, as well as new-hires, and require they sign a document stating they have read and understand it. Keep it in each employee’s file if you face a reasonable suspicion confrontation meeting.

A comprehensive drug and alcohol policy ensures consistency in the reasonable suspicion process when a supervisor suspects impairment.

Should I Terminate an Employee Who Tests Positive for Drug and Alcohol Use?

Check your state, county and city laws about employee termination. You may not necessarily be required to terminate. Whether you terminate or not, help your employee find a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) to get the appropriate help. You can’t require SAP participation, but you can terminate for refusal. If you choose to allow your employee to return to work, follow the recommendations of the SAP and require a negative return to duty drug test.

Supervisor Training

Supervisor training is a critical piece of successful reasonable suspicion drug testing. Without it, supervisors assume this is a Human Resource issue. While it may eventually be, it’s unlikely your HR managers have direct observation of your employees’ behaviors. If supervisors don’t know what to look for or how to confront an employee suspected of drug or alcohol use, they’re hesitant to address it because they’re afraid of making the wrong decision.

Federal regulations require supervisors receive a minimum of 2 hours of training on reasonable suspicion signs, symptoms, and documentation with recommended renewal every 12-18 months. We recommend general businesses adopt the same policy.


Drug testing improves employee morale and productivity while decreasing absenteeism, accidents, downtime, turnover and theft. When your business conducts fair and consistent reasonable suspicion drug testing, you dissuade and detect drug and alcohol use. Empowering your supervisors to know what to do when they suspect drug or alcohol use ensures a safe workplace.

Lobdock trains your supervisors
and offers comprehensive drug and alcohol testing.
Call us at 405-822-0553 for class information.

We’re Workplace Safety, Simplified.

Confronting an employee you have reason to believe is using drugs or alcohol at work is stressful. Be prepared.

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