Employee Drug Testing as Social Control

AuthorJames R. Brunet
Published date01 September 2002
Date01 September 2002
Subject MatterArticles
Employee Drug Testing as Social Control
A Typology of Normative Justifications
North Carolina State University
Workplace drug testing is a commonplace practice in the United States. Social
control theory, the study of social responsesto deviant behavior, provides a useful
framework for examining the underlying rationalesfor employee drug testing. A
historical-legal analysis of federal employee drug testing uncovers six contrasting
justifications supporting such tests (performance, health, and safety; deterrence;
rehabilitation; symbolic; technology; and conflict). The article presents a promis-
ing theoretical structure (typology) for studying personnel policies that emerge as
the result of new technologies in the workplace. Implications for personnel
administrators and first-line managers are also explored.
Workplace drug testing is a commonplace practice in many public and
private sector organizations in the United States. The apparent ubiquity of
drug testing, however, belies its rapid emergence over the past decade. At
the federal level, large-scale drug testing began with President Reagan’s
1986 call for a “drug-free federal workplace” (ExecutiveOrder No. 12564,
1986). The order required workers in “sensitive positions,” approximately
17% of the federal workforce, to submit to random drug screens (Jacobs &
Zimmer, 1991, p.345; Zimmer & Jacobs, 1992, p. 1). State and local gov-
ernments, particularly law enforcement agencies, quickly followed the fed-
eral lead. More than half of all state police departments and one quarter of
all sheriff and municipal police departments required job applicants to sub-
mit to mandatory drug tests in 1990 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995,
p. 15). During this same period, private sector employers rapidly imple-
mented drug detection procedures. By 1996, 81% of corporations reported
Author’sNote: The author wishes to thank Dennis M. Daley, Michael L. Vasu,Patricia L.
McCall, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of the
Review of Public Personnel Administration,Vol. 22, No. 3 Fall 2002 193-215
© 2002 Sage Publications
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testing employees for illicit substances, a threefold increase since 1987
(American Management Association, 1998).
The social science literature on drug testing divides into two areas—
studies that look at legal and other technical considerations related to pro-
gram implementation and effectiveness and theoretical investigations that
explore the normative justifications behind drug-testing policies. Riccucci’s
(1990) analysis of the legal issues surrounding the implementation of drug-
testing programs is representative of the applied research of the first part.
Additional studies have assessed the implementation of drug-testing pro-
grams at the federal (Thompson, Riccucci, & Ban, 1991) and local levels
(Daley & Ellis, 1994; Fine, Reeves,& Harney, 1996). A team of researchers
representing both the medical and social science communities produced a
detailed study of the impact of drug use in the American workforce and rec-
ommended alternative methods for dealing with the problem (Normand,
Lempert, & O’Brien, 1994). Perhaps the fastest growing stream of applied
research comes in the area of employee attitudes toward drug testing (see
Moore, Grunberg, & Greenberg, 1998, as a representative example).
A small body of research explores the motivations behind the construc-
tion of employee drug-testing programs.1Much of the research is rooted in
social control theory—the study of social responses to nonconformist
behavior. O’Malley and Mugford (1991, pp. 141-142) viewed drug testing
as a “technique designed to pursue deeply moral goals” held by “self-
appointed crusaders.” Conflict theorists see drug testing as a way for the
state and its corporate agents to control workers (Gerber, Jensen, Schreck,
& Babcock, 1990). Other researchers note the importance of symbols in
social control. According to Reinarman, Waldorf, and Murphy (1988),
cocaine serves as a symbolic “scapegoat”for all the dr ug problemsin society.
In their view, the current war against drugs has been recast as a war against
cocaine. The war analogy justifies the extreme tactics taken to eradicate
drugs in the workplace, including the invasion of worker privacy. Hanson
(1993, p. 171) directed his research to the effects of drug testing on those
who are subjected to it. He posited that drug testing reinforces “the auto-
matic docility that people have.” This has important ramifications for soci-
ety because a passive or disciplined population submits to any formal direc-
tive without need for rationale or justification. Gilliom (1994) placed
employee drug testing at the beginning of a trend in technical advances that
leads to greater surveillance over individuals. Hecker and Kaplan (1989)
saw drug testing as a continuation of the disciplinary and control systems
that emerged during the Industrial Revolution and scientific management
movement. Finally, Borg and Arnold (1997) conceptualized drug testing as
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