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The case for drug testing your employees

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Jackie Calmes reports for the New York Times that employers are having a hard time finding people who can pass a drug test. And Andy Cush says at Gawker that he has a simple solution: Stop drug testing employees altogether.

But there's actually a good case for drug testing employees: A 2014 study by Notre Dame economist Abigail Wozniak suggested it can prevent racial disparities in the labor force, because employers often wrongly assume minority applicants are more likely to be drug users — and not hire them — without a drug test.

Wozniak evaluated the idea by looking at states' policies for drug testing. She found that states with laws that encourage the tests have 7 to 10 percent more low-skilled black men working in high-testing industries than all states with no such law, and 30 percent more low-skilled black men working in high-testing industries than states that discourage the practice. But white women appear to lose out through more drug testing, since, according to the study, employers may substitute black workers with them.

Wozniak acknowledged more research is needed on the issue. (This was not a randomized controlled trial, for one.) But her results were promising for black workers.

Drug testing, then, could help solve one of the big racial issues of our time: prejudice in the workplace. In a 2003 study, researchers sent out otherwise identical resumes using stereotypical white and stereotypical black names; the participants with "white" names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews. And this study is only a couple of many more examples.

Drug testing a potential employee wouldn't stop many or even most of these cases of racial prejudice, since beliefs about race can go much deeper than drug use. But the tests may help.

This doesn't mean drug testing is the absolute best option for employers. It would be better if employers just stopped caring what employees do at home, and only took action if it actually caused issues in the workplace — if someone, for instance, showed up at work clearly drunk or high.

After all, caring so much about people using drugs at home, as the Times story shows, might mean giving up job candidates who are great despite their drug use. Even the FBI acknowledged this: In 2014, FBI Director James Comey suggested that the agency's policy of refusing marijuana users can block out potentially good hires. "I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview," Comey said, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps the real lesson, then, is employers shouldn't make such a huge fuss about what people do in the privacy of their own homes. But as long as they do care, drug testing can at least help them target job applicants who really are using drugs, instead of working on racist assumptions.