Positive result, now what? Procedures for helping your employees through addiction.


Drug testing days are an exciting time as potential hires and returning employees anxiously await their turns to test, and anticipate the results. Even if someone is not on drugs, drug testing still causes an air of nervousness, since some common cold and sinus medicines, vitamin supplements, and foods can cause a false positive result on an instant drug test.


How do you know if the drug test is a false positive? Sometimes a second test provides the added assurance, but sometimes there is no easy answer, and further investigation is required. It is necessary to notify the employee of the results of their drug test, regardless of the result. Notifying an employee of a positive drug test result is something that must be done in a uniform manner according to your company’s written policies and procedures.


The Importance of Policies and Procedures


Having these policies and procedures in place for handling both positive and negative results are an important part of having a successful drug-free workplace. In the event that you are faced with a positive result in a drug test, helping your employees navigate through the company’s procedures to treat illicit drug use or addiction, and getting them help they need it (if they accept the help) must take place in a way that is legal, humane, respectful, and in many cases allowing for the employee to return to the workplace once rehabilitation is complete.


Here are some guidelines for handling positive results for a drug test. Your state may have certain laws and guidelines concerning drug testing in the workplace. For instance, it is illegal in some states to discharge an employee for their first offense by failing a drug test. Implementing statewide policies along with what your company values will help these procedures run smoothly for both testing administrators and those being tested.


The Likelihood of False Positives


No one looks forward to delivering or receiving the news of a positive drug test. The good news is YES – sometimes these results are explainable for those who are not on drugs. Some cold medications, foods, and even vitamin supplements contain traces of the very same substances found in illegal drugs.

Common cold and sinus medications, for example, contain traces of the same ingredients found in methamphetamines. Poppy seeds, while a wonderful addition to muffins, scones, and bagels, can cause testers to test positive for traces of opiates. Foods and supplements containing high levels of riboflavin may find a positive testing result for marijuana, since many of these riboflavin-rich foods use hemp oil, which registers on a drug test for traces of THC.


How can someone who is NOT on drugs avoid losing their job due to a false positive result? By notifying testers upfront about any and all medications, prescriptions, or potentially questionable foods you’ve had in the past 30 days. Providing this information upfront will allow the testing administrator to confirm that whichever traces do appear will be accounted for without question.

Notifying the employee

Consulting a lawyer is a good idea if your company is relatively new to company-wide drug testing. Having the layer review your policies and advise you on what actions to take (since laws change over time) will ensure you are properly adhering to your state’s laws regarding the handling of drug tests, employee terminations, and probational rights.


If you find yourself in the position of having a positive result, even after testing twice, you will need to notify your employee(s) immediately and remove them from the work area if they are currently at work. You can anticipate that the employees who are using drugs will likely have an explanation (excuse) as to why the results came back as they did. Ask the employee first if there are any medical explanations. Sometimes employees are taking prescribed medications that are within reason if your employee can present the prescription.


Listen and carefully write down the feedback you receive. If a faulty test is to blame (this is why you should test twice for best results), it is very important to record as much as possible to demonstrate how the results of the test were handled. Sometimes a person takes a cold or sinus medication without knowing that they will in turn create traces of substances on a drug test similar to methamphetamines. It’s important that test administrators are aware of these common trace elements that influence testing as well, so that responses can be easily validated. For example, if an employee tests positive for THC, and they claim that a poppy seed muffin was the culprit, a savvy testing administrator will know that this excuse is not a valid excuse, since poppy seeds are known to produce traces of opiates, not THC. Proper training of testing administrators is the key to making such assertions.


If you didn’t happen to do two tests the first time around, and you see a positive result, now is an ideal time to retest before notifying the employee, preferably with the very same specimen. It is NOT advisable to allow the employee to be tested on a completely new sample or at a later date, as allowing notification and time between a retest could give the employee an opportunity to get their hands on an adulterant or other means of manipulating the next drug test taken.


Offering Employees a Chance to Come Clean


Once you notify the employee of their test results, and all other external factors have been ruled out, your company might then provide the employee with a document explaining their options as a result of testing positive, and some possible next steps to take. It is possible that your employee may choose to abandon their job. However, if given the chance to get help and resume working when they are rehabilitated, many employees appreciate the opportunity to keep their job, and are willing to seek counseling for their drug problem.


Some employees may challenge the results of their tests. When such cases arise, the employee can have another test done at a laboratory at their own expense, using the original specimen. Time is of the essence in such cases, which is why having quick turnaround on testing result is such a benefit.  


Perhaps the most important factor in handling drug tests results is the way in which procedures are followed. The procedures for handling a positive drug test result should remain absolutely consistent for each and every employee, regardless of their position, length of time with the company, performance, or closeness to fellow employees.


When writing your company’s substance abuse policy, options for getting your employee help, in addition to offering resources throughout the year, are a great way to spread the awareness about resources that employees could take advantage of before a test date. If termination is not the immediate course of action to take after a positive result (and some states prohibit immediate termination for an employee’s first offense, so be sure to review laws carefully before writing your substance abuse policy), then refer the employee to the assistance programs in place.


Having these employee assistance programs in place in advance of testing dates will prevent your company from losing an otherwise good employee due to a drug problem. Investing in an employee’s well-being and health makes for a more supportive work environment.



A typical course of action is to first remove the employee from the working conditions, for the safety of both the employee and fellow employees. If the employee accepts the company’s policies regarding probation and rehabilitation procedures, a probationary period can be instated, during which time the employee is required to get help whether by visiting a rehabilitation program, or by obtaining professional support from a counselor to work through their reasons for taking drugs.


When the employee returns to work

Upon completing on the required probationary period and rehabilitation process, an employee should once again be tested before returning to work. In instances where companies partner with agencies that provide these rehabilitation services, and such companies will notify employers when the employee is able to return to work.


When the employee returns, it is cause for celebration, since overcoming a drug problem or addiction can be a big challenge. Perhaps your company has a support group for employees who have overcome addiction, where the employee can feel supported at work.


The employee should be able to resume their regular job duties. If your employee’s position within the company is particularly stressful, perhaps adding wellness programs into your company will help them and other employees manage their stress levels, thereby preventing an energetic meltdown. Many companies now offer breaks for circuit training, yoga, mediation, or other activities which give employees time to unwind and recharge in order to manage the mental demands of their workload. These programs have shown to increase employee well-being, encourage health, and productivity at work.


Avoiding Positive Test Results and Saving Time


The best way to avoid getting a positive drug test result in the first place is to make your “No Tolerance” or Substance Abuse Policy crystal clear to every one of your applicants and employees. Notifying potential hires upfront, and having them sign an acknowledgement that your company conducts drug testing will dissuade those who use drugs from applying, and will save your company the cost of having positive results and lost time in the hiring process.


For existing employees, positive encouragement by developing wellness programs or organizing a wellness committee is a wise step toward preventative care. Having a company full of employees who feel valued and supported improves your workplace culture, and leads to a safer workplace for everyone.