Substance abuse is not uncommon however, unlike many debilitating afflictions, it is a condition people are able to recover from. How should HR approach the employment of former substance abusers?
Would you hire a former substance abuser?
When you imagine a former addict in the workplace, you might think of someone who’s likely to slip at any moment, back into being a flaky employee who shows up late – and whose performance is erratic, if not consistently low.
But is the opposite true? Years ago Iain Duncan Smith, a conservative member of Parliament in the UK made headlines by arguing former substance abusers “can make the best workers.” He said the evidence suggests they combine gratitude for the opportunity to get their life back on track with “ tenacity, drive and dedication to the job.”
He’s not alone, several companies swear by the virtues of hiring former addicts, such as Australian transport company Toll Holdings, and US based companies Ventura Tech Drilling Technologies, Envirosafe Stripping Inc, and Creative Matters.
The risks of hiring a former drug user
The unfortunate truth is, a former substance abuser may be clean, but a relapse is potentially just around the corner. According to the US based National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the relapse rate is 40-60 per cent. As employee turnover and loss of productivity is expensive, it’s natural to not want to hire someone who may be a liability. Disruption to employee relations through neglect of duties and displays of inappropriate behaviour – not to mention workplace injury and accidents – are other factors to consider.
The positive aspects of hiring a former substance abuser
So what about those companies that have given former substance abusers a chance?
Venturatech CEO Larry Keast says the positive attitude of former addicts boosts morale. “There was a time I didn’t like walking through my own shop because of morale,” Keast tells me, “But the grateful attitude of those in need really changed the atmosphere.”
Toll Holdings, who run a rehabilitation program through St Kilda Drug and Alcohol Clinic, says 95 per cent of the former addicts employed by Toll have stayed in the job.
Ex-bombers Chairman Paul Little, who helped establish the program at Toll says, “It’s about restoring people’s belief in themselves … that they can do something with their lives,” Mr Little says. “And guess what? They become outstanding employees.”
Companies may also be given a boost in terms of corporate social responsibility by giving former addicts a chance, which can fare well with clients and customers. Employers can capitalise on this position by getting involved with local charities to gain positive media attention.
Hiring a former substance abuser affords companies the opportunity to develop or strengthen their existing drug and alcohol policies in terms of management, support and discipline. This will work well to safeguard employers from the negative consequences of substance abuse in the workplace in the future.
The legal aspects of hiring former substance abusers
HRM spoke to Aaron Goonrey, Partner at Lander and Rogers Lawyers, who said when enquiring about a prospective employee’s past behaviour in relation to substance abuse, it’s always important to keep in mind the possibility of disability based discrimination. Although substance abuse, current or former, is not technically considered to be a disability, there are some grey areas.
Under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act, if drug dependence has compromised the physical or mental function of a person, and someone discriminates against that person because of the impaired function, that could amount to disability discrimination. Under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, however, you can discriminate against someone if their disability relates to the addiction to an illegal drug.
Can you hire former addicts conditionally based on random drug tests?
Maybe, Goonrey says, if the employee agrees prior to starting at a company. It would also be necessary to put a relevant provision in the employment contract. The reason for the random drug testing would need to be related to health and safety. Keeping in mind that an employer has no rights in relation to what an employee does in their own time, including taking illegal substances.
While it’s wise to err on the side of caution, former substance abusers may just be an untapped source of loyal and dedicated employees.