This is only a test

Who are you really hiring? And, could this person potentially sacrifice the safety of a crew because of irresponsible lifestyle choices? These are questions that employers consider when putting a drug testing program in place. There are two camps: companies that wonder, “What organization can afford not to test?” and businesses that believe life happens; people make bad choices. If someone is on a clean track, give him a chance to work and be a productive contributor. What employees do on their own time is their own business.

Some insurance providers want to know if your company requires pre-employment, post-accident or random drug testing. Elana Daley, co-owner of Daley Landscape in Ojai, Calif., says clients might not directly ask the question, but they want assurance that workers on their properties are living responsibly.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms about their drug testing policies and how the choice to test, or not, affects hiring, retention and the overall business environment.

A clean reputation

The high-profile and celebrity clients Daley Landscape serve in the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara market trust the company to safely enter their properties and perform quality work. And homeowners don’t invite just anyone onto their grounds.

“When you work on someone’s property you are essentially coming into the home, and because clients entrust us to go into their homes at any time – whether for maintenance, renovation or fixing a leaky sprinkler – we want them to know that the work will get done, that our people are clean,” Daley says.

Daley Landscape began drug testing about four years ago, when Daley noticed that insurers were asking the question: Do you have a safety program? Do you perform pre-employment screening, and if so do you require a drug test? Do you conduct background checks?

So, the company decided to ramp up its application process and institute these pre-employment screening tests, including checking employees’ driving records and criminal records, and testing for drugs.

Daley began by reviewing the application for employment and adding a couple of key questions: Have you been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony? If yes, provide a date of conviction, state and county, and describe the circumstances.

The application asks: Has your employment with anyone ever been involuntarily terminated? If so, please explain.

After offering a prospect a job, Daley Landscape asks the potential hire to go immediately to get a drug test through its third-party provider, HireRight.

Employment is contingent on getting the drug test, and the complete screening package costs the company about $150 per candidate. “This process has made a difference with hiring, and it has shown us that we can’t always trust our own experience about a person,” Daley says.

For example, the company hired one candidate who admitted to a drug conviction on his application. He explained that he had cleaned up his life. He passed the pre-employment drug test, so Daley hired him.

However, because of the drug conviction, Daley’s insurance company would not allow this employee to drive a company vehicle. “We knew we had a guy we could hire, but we could not let him drive a vehicle, which posed a problem,” Daley says.

But Daley decided to give him a chance and hire him anyway. “He came to work for us for a week and he showed his true colors, and then we cut him loose,” she says. “There was a red flag there, and you learn.”

Daley has had job applicants refuse the drug test, though this does not happen often because they know that it’s part of the onboarding process. “I have had guys who have great references but they won’t go in and test,” she says.

“We offered them a job. We said we’d love for you to come work for us, you interviewed successfully, now if you can demonstrate by a drug test and background screening, we will be assured that what you are telling us is, in fact, what you are living.”

This frustrates Daley because the reality is, sometimes the background screening does not match what the prospect reveals on an application. But, because the application does ask pointed questions about a person’s background, she says that the company tends to attract clean, reliable candidates most of the time.

“If something shows up on their background check that they do not reveal on the application, we can immediately terminate the (hiring) process because they falsified the application,” Daley says.

Daley doesn’t directly advertise to clients that employees are drug-tested, but she does promote that the people who will work on their properties are of high integrity. “I let them know we hire people who want to work and who are interested in leading a clean life,” she says.

Create a safety culture

Protecting employees’ safety is the crux of the drug testing program at Total Lawn Care (TLC) based in Weslaco, Texas, because the what-ifs associated with not screening are just too risky, if you ask president, Gary Bower.

“We have four guys in a truck. What if one of them is high on cocaine? Everyone is at risk,” Bower says.

In fact, the company has experienced some accidents where drug use was involved, though not necessarily the cause of the incidents. And these situations occurred after Bower instituted pre-employment drug screening in 2003 – part of a mission to provide an “excellent working environment.” “The No. 1 way we do that is through safety, and that is why we implemented drug testing,” he says.

TLC requires individuals who are offered a job to take a pre-employment drug test. The company also requires post-accident drug testing, and random drug testing several times a year. “We have terminated employees based on them not doing the post-accident drug-test,” Bower says, referring to two scenarios.

In one case, an employee drove a zero-turn mower over a curb and fell off the machine. His arm landed on the muffler and he was severely burned. “We took him to the hospital right away, where we said, ‘We have to do a drug test,’ and he refused,” Bower says. “He said, ‘No. I’m high on coke. I’m not going to do it.’”

In effect, the employee terminated himself.

The other situation involved a key employee who hit a building’s canopy with a truck. “I said, ‘No problem, let’s deal with the accident, get the drug test and we’re all good,’” Bower says. “He refused to go (get the test).”

Other managers wondered if Bower would let the guy off and give him a break since he was on the foreman level. “Losing that employee was huge,” Bower says, but he could not allow him to continue employment. He held fast to the company policy. “Drug testing is not about catching an employee,” Bower says.

“It’s about investing in your company. Our people are our greatest asset, so it’s sad to lose someone.

“It’s not about saying drugs are wrong. I was a kid once. It’s about the safety of others,” Bower adds.

Random drug testing at TLC happens every quarter, when three to five employees’ social security numbers are drawn by the third party that administers the drug tests. Bower has had his name pulled, too. TLC will loosen up on its random drug testing during periods when all employees have been in place for some time and there’s consistency. “But the last couple of years we have had an influx of employment,” Bower says. The random drug testing reaffirms TLC’s commitment to being a safe, drug-free workplace.

But, random testing has a down side. “It can be demotivating and some field employees feel like they are not trusted,” Bower says. Others might say that they were chosen for the test because the company wants to get rid of them. “There are types who are defensive, maybe not being the great performers they feel like they are being targeted, but that has nothing to do with it.”

Bower says communication is how the company helps employees understand that drug testing is part of the system at TLC. It’s just like any other process in place.

Overall, drug testing has been a positive experience for TLC because it gives employees and Bower peace of mind that the people operating trucks and equipment are safe and reliable. “It’s about protecting my people,” he says. “When they are on a zero-turn mower, they have control.”

Operate on trust

Calculated risk and second chances – these principles explain why Brian Scott will hire an employee without performing a drug test, and why he will also consider a worker who has been in trouble with the law before. Scott is careful about who he hires to work at his small business, because it’s a close-knit crew working in a small community where everyone knows your name. But he is also aware that some people just need a break to improve their lives. He is willing to give those individuals a chance if their performance on the job aligns with his company’s high standards.

“There are a lot of people who have had issues in the past who need job security – they need something regular, they need to wake up and do something,” says Scott, president of Elite Landscapes in Spotswood, N.J.

Scott’s theory is, if you show up and do the work as expected – and if your after-hours activities do not interfere with job performance – then your time is your business. He’s had this discussion with workers before. “I said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me what you do at home, but when you are at work you have to work and no questions asked.’”

Scott calls himself a relaxed business owner, though he’s serious about getting the work done for his clients and he has grown his operation over the years.

He says his firm’s job is to provide labor. “That is what landscaping is,” Scott says, when you take away materials and designs. “I sell labor to put in those products.”

One could argue that drug testing provides assurance that the people he hires are clean. But Scott operates on trust. He expects his employees to come clean and tell him about their past if there are issues he should be aware of.

But he understands that trouble happens. For instance, one employee got tied up “in the wrong situation” and was in court for fraud.

Essentially, he was in a vehicle when a passenger tried to cash a bogus check in the bank drive-through. “That’s a red flag and some employers might not look past his application,” Scott says.

But Scott hired this person and he has been a reliable, hard-working employee. “You can’t change what happened in the past,” he says.

“It happened. And maybe a larger company won’t hire the person, but that job will put money in the bank so he can pay the bills and get back on track.”


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