“I’d like to send an employee in for a random drug test.”

I get calls like this frequently. It usually means they suspect an employee is using some kind of prohibited substance and they want to conduct a test.


On the surface it seems like a reasonable request. But it’s not a truly random drug test, is it? In fact, it’s not random at all.

This would be better categorized as a Reasonable Suspicion test, which is also a perfectly legitimate reason to test.

Random drug testing is, well, random. To be statistically random, names are selected from a pool at a predetermined rate. Each person in the testing pool has an equal chance to chosen.

No one can accuse the employer of favoritism or of picking on someone. If it’s truly random, it’s defensible.

An example

  • 100 employees
  • Testing rate: 50%
  • Quarterly selections – That means 50 random tests per year, so 12 or 13 each quarter.

At the end of each quarter, we make sure that the employee list is up to date and select the randoms using specialized software.

The employer is provided a list of selections and a deadline to get them completed.

If an employee is chosen in January, is he off the hook for the rest of the year?

Nope. Next quarter he could be selected again. That’s what makes random drug testing the most effective deterrent.

So what about someone you think may be using drugs or alcohol?

There is, indeed, a chance that person may be selected randomly, but if you have a legitimate reason to suspect someone, then you should conduct a Reasonable Suspicion Test. Of course, this means creating proper documentation and a serious conversation. We routinely walk clients through this process. And we provide reasonable suspicion training as well.

Why companies have random drug testing programs

Some do it by law. Federal contractors, the military and organizations regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation are required to. But that’s only 20% of the industry.

The main reason many companies use random drug testing is NOT to “catch” and punish employees that are using drugs. It is about safety, preventing accidents and encouraging a productive, positive work environment. The most effective way to deter employee workplace drug-use is random employee drug testing.

How effective is Random Drug Testing?

In a word: Very.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research: “

[W]e find that a strict employer anti-drug program is a highly effective means of deterring illicit drug use among current users as well as potential user.” The NBER also reports that “Drug prevalence rates in the military fell from 27.6 percent in 1980 to only 3.4 percent in 1992.” That’s a big drop.

After the Federal Drug-free Workplace Act went into effect in 1988, the positivity rate dropped from 13.6% to 3.7% in 2013.

The main reasons random testing works:

  • Drug users avoid drug testing – If they know a company tests, they don’t apply there.
  • Deterrent – If you are an employee subject to random testing, and you are not willing to pay the price if you fail, then you are less likely to use.
  • Employee health – Random drug testing often detects employees who have a drug problem and need help. We have a number of clients that treat it that way.

Although recent years have seen an increase in positive test results, it’s a far cry from 1988.

Think about it: when you know that every time you go to work, you could get a tap on the shoulder to go test, wouldn’t you think twice before using?

What if an otherwise good employee fails a random drug test?

Some employers think about this up front. Others don’t think it’s a problem — until it is.

We help our clients deal with this issue frequently.

How you deal with it is a matter of how it’s addressed in your company policy. Many companies treat a positive random drug test as an opportunity to help an employee with an addiction problem. Others have zero tolerance and terminate them. Make sure your policy addresses consequences for a failed test.

Reasons to drug test

The most common times companies conduct drug tests are pre-employment, post-accident, reasonable suspicion and random. If you are an employer, it’s important to understand the difference, or work with a company like InOut Labs who can help you figure it out.

Further Reading about Drug Tests: