Why random drug testing at work is a bad policy

25th August 2020

Written by

Shaun Bailey

How would you feel about your employer ushering you into a room and requiring you to pee in a bottle? That’s the scenario favoured by Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, who wants to introduce random drug testing in the office.

Bailey wants all businesses with more than 250 employees to sign up to a testing charter, routinely checking for signs of illegal drugs. He would then publish a league table of companies with the most drug addled workforces.

This is noteworthy in as much as it is an actual policy from Bailey, who has been running a uniformly negative campaign. Bailey’s social media largely consists of attacks on Sadiq Khan over the woes of Transport for London without any acknowledgement of the combined hit of of COVID-19 and a financially gruesome settlement imposed by the Conservative government.

It would be easy to dismiss employee drug testing as attention seeking behaviour from a candidate who is 23 points behind in the polls and desperate for publicity. But to be fair, Bailey does have a point in highlighting the morally complacent attitude of many professionals, not least in the Square Mile, towards recreational drug use.

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, has pointed out multiple times that drug use, of any kind, fuels a violent supply chain and has questioned the hypocrisy of middle-class urbanites who insist on organic, fair trade coffee and who worry about climate change but who see no problem with ingesting cocaine at a party.

Statistical evidence underlines the middle-class abuse issue. The 2017/8 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 3.4% of people in households with income of more than £50,000 reported cocaine use over the previous year, compared with 2.1% for those with incomes below £10,000 and 2.1% of those making between £20,000 and £30,000.

Addiction specialists report that those in particularly high pressure roles are sometimes more susceptible to risk-taking and addictive behaviour.

Bailey’s idea, though, goes against all common sense in building a constructive employer/employee relationship, and seems to fundamentally misunderstand the role of an employer.

It is not the job of businesses to police their staff for signs of illegal activity in their spare time. Enforced drugs testing would feed an atmosphere of suspicion, resentment and mistrust, and could even be used by less scrupulous employers to bully and victimise people.

It would be equally unfair on HR people required, presumably, to administer such a scheme, and many businesses would gulp at the cost and administration involved. It would raise questions over the retention of sensitive personal data.

His proposal to publish league tables would also act as a huge disincentive to businesses – why on earth would any company welcome a scheme that would ultimately place them on a salacious league table of workforce drug abusers – without addressing the underlying problem?  Finally, it is fairly obvious that alcohol remains the drug of choice for many and its misuse often leads to greater personal and professional harm than other substances.

There are more sensible ways to address this issue that have nothing to do with the businesses in the City and wider economy. More rigorous enforcement of existing laws when recreational suppliers (who sometimes escape with only a caution) are caught, and through measures to improve employers’ awareness of the signs to spot in employees who may have drugs problems.

Attitudes, also, need to change. Public information campaigns on the subject tend to be about the risk of harm to oneself – which occasional recreational users find it easy to shrug off. Perhaps they’d take more notice if deterrent signs on toilet doors highlighting the link between their behaviour, the knife and gun crime and rainforest destruction that are associated with the coca supply chain.

It would be a pleasant surprise if Shaun Bailey could turn his attention to some of the other pressing problems facing London, not least the capital’s economy and transport infrastructure. Rather than shouting at clouds about Crossrail, could he tell us how he’d fix it? And instead of blaming Sadiq Khan for a collapse in fare income at Transport for London, perhaps he could come up with his own plan to get the City moving post-pandemic?

By Andrew Clark, Chief Operating Officer, Labour in the City