Why Black Workers Should Celebrate Employment Drug Testing
May 22, 2014
Earlier this week, I read an interesting study on employers’ use of substance abuse tests as a hiring tool and how they impact minorities. According to the study conducted by Notre Dame labor economist, Abigail Wozniak, in states where testing is prevalent due to supportive laws, black employment increased between 7% and 30%, and wages for black workers increased by between 1.4% and 13%. Bluntly, this means that fewer minorities, in this case African-Americans failed drug tests and as a result were hired at an increased rate than if they hadn’t been tested.
My first observation was to reflect on a parallel theory asserted by U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow: employers are less likely to discriminate against minorities when they conduct employment background checks. The theory is based on Kirsanow’s belief that we are all biased in some way, even when aren’t trying to be. So, if I am a white business owner and I am interviewing a white candidate and a black candidate who are equally qualified, but I do not conduct background checks, I am more likely to hire the candidate that I affiliate with. A less subtle example would be if I had a predisposition to believe that minorities had a greater propensity to commit crimes and I didn’t conduct background checks, I wouldn’t afford myself the opportunity to know that the minority candidate I was talking to was an upstanding citizen.
It’s not a big leap to believe the same premise Kirsanow asserts on criminal background checks applies to drug testing as well. In fact, check out this quote from the study where Wozniak opined why a lack of drug testing led to a lower rate of minority hires:
“Without the testing, employers went by their gut biases. But when testing became common and showed that black applicants were not actually using drugs, hiring rates for black applicants went up. Wozniak concludes that this is evidence of discrimination against black workers before testing, driven by some combination of racialized belief and ignorance. One other interesting finding from the study is that absent drug testing, employers tend to hire white women instead of black men.”
But You Said . . .
The next observation I had kind of rocked my world (yeah, I know I have no life). Much of the concern over the disparate rates of arrests and incarceration between whites and minorities are that of crimes involving drugs. If this study accurately reflects usage statistics among whites and minorities, it would seem to shoot a gaping hole in this argument. Now, I understand that I made a big leap that suggesting drug use equals criminal activity involving drugs, but I would assert that in a vast majority of cases, this theory holds true.
I’m not naive enough to think that this study alone will cause the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other groups that support efforts to get those with convictions back to work to flip their playbook, but I do think that it’s time to start paying attention to these collective studies and make sure that efforts to curb the use of employment background checks aren’t creating barriers to minorities finding gainful employment.
It’s also worth thinking about whether things such as background checks and substance abuse actually improve the candidate experience for minorities. If they know that a fair evaluation is given and that all candidates are subjected to the same assessments, they can rest easier knowing that the color of their skin won’t play a factor in the hiring decision.