Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

I am beginning a series of posts on business and work and this two-part drug testing series is a very good place to start. Why? This is counter-intuitive: Drug testing is not “the secret of our success” but it’s the most important reason we are not failing. There’s plenty of advice on what attributes one should cultivate in order to achieve success, but there’s not all that much about how to avoid ruining things…no matter the things that are done right…

I operate a professional telephone answering service. Do the details that concern me concern you and your business? Probably.

With 35 employees total, Centratel Answering Service does very well as we provide message taking and message delivery for doctors, veterinarians, HVAC’s, hospice home health agencies, funeral homes and a variety of high and low-tech service companies. Based on some very specific statistics, we’re the highest telephone answering service in North America. We have very low staff turnover and extremely long client longevity. I work two hours a week managing the enterprise. Our profits are consistently good, we pay our people nearly double what they would get elsewhere, we provide competitive pricing to our 1,000+ clients and, in an industry that has a reputation for marginal quality, we offer the best quality that can be found.

Friends ask, “how do you do that?” One would think hard work, perseverance, innovation and plain dumb luck would be major factors, and that’s true – they are factors – but it’s not just because of those things: I say this because, compared to me, there’s no shortage of smarter, harder working, higher educated, more fearless, better connected, and more attractive and engaging personality types out there – who fail.

Let’s get “outside and slightly elevated” and look at this differently, assuming one has everything necessary to succeed including all of the above as well as a fantastic product or service, terrific marketing plan, and eager market. Despite everything being perfect, what could sabotage success?

Very simple: stoned employees.

Don’t scoff yet. Following is an excerpt from my book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. It’s an explanation of why it’s difficult for us to find people who qualify for employment but, on the other hand, why we keep great employees for a long time. (And “keeping great employees for a long time” is certainly key to business success.)

It’s our greatest challenge: Centratel’s pay and benefits are very good, but no matter how aggressively we advertise our positions, we don’t have many job applicants. Because we have a hard time finding qualified people, we are fortunate we have little staff turnover. But the irony of simultaneous recruitment challenges and staff stability is understandable. If one digs a bit, it becomes clear why we have problems finding job applicants—and the good fortune of having high staff stability. It’s our drug-testing policy, as posted in the Employee Handbook.

Before we instituted drug testing, we had plenty of job applicants, but there was also high staff turnover. A staff that uses drugs is flighty, and a flighty staff means call-handling expertise achieved through long-term experience won’t happen.

Our brutal judgment is that only a limited number of service-industry job candidates are drug free. It’s a painful, almost unbelievable conclusion, but we operate on that basis because the statistics bear it out. The choice seems to be, “I’d rather smoke dope and earn minimum wage with no benefits at a menial job, then not smoke dope at Centratel, where I could earn more than double minimum wage with full benefits.” Ouch.

Many business owners understand the truth of this so they don’t invoke drug testing. Of those who do, it’s a gamble. I know of one local restaurant that had to close its doors after an impromptu drug screening of all its employees. They had to terminate employment for nine of their twelve people. Another local business, a new, huge “box” store, selected twenty people for its automotive department. Sixteen of the twenty failed the drug testing.

Did our decision to use drug screening stem from an outside-and-slightly-elevated perspective? There is no question. Per our Strategic Objective, we looked down on our business and decided we required a stable workforce. We decided to trade the chaos of high staff turnover for the staid challenge of finding drug-free people who are steady, superb performers.

To be sure, the introduction of a drug-testing policy must be handled with care, supported by a well thought-out written policy.

Sam Carpenter is author of the book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.

Next time, in Part 2: How We Drug Test.

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