Is failing a drug test a reason for an automatic dismissal?
A recent decision made by the Employment Tribunal has highlighted the importance of not treating a positive drug test result as a reason for automatic dismissal.
In the case of Ball v First Essex Buses Ltd, Mr Ball was employed as a bus driver and had over 20 years’ service with his employers. Part of his employment involved a routine drug test, in which the employee was expected to provide a saliva sample. To the employee’s surprise, the drug test came back and had tested positive for cocaine. Because of this, his employers suspended him and advised him he would be required to attend a fact-finding meeting.
At this meeting the employee argued that he had not taken any drugs apart from medication prescribed by his GP and that he had arranged to have a hair follicle test to prove this. This test then came back negative.
At the disciplinary hearing, Mr Ball was informed that his employer would only consider the saliva test results and not the independent hair follicle test results as they had not been carried out by one of the companies approved testers.
It was concluded that he failed the random drug test and his employment should be terminated with immediate effect. The employee appealed but remained dismissed.
Employment Tribunal considerations
When determining whether a dismissal is fair or unfair, the Employment Tribunal will assess whether the employer acted reasonably or unreasonably. In which they will look at the procedure the employer followed: Did the employer carry out a proper investigation? Was the employee given the opportunity to take a colleague into the meeting and were they given the opportunity to appeal the decision? They will then look to see whether the reason for dismissal fell within the band of reasonable responses.
In Bell v First Essex Buses Ltd, the Employment Tribunal held that: “Given the random nature of the test; the contra-indicators of the claimants good character, age (he was 60 years old), health, etc; the possibility of cross-contamination; the possibility of mislabelling the sample; the two negative hair follicle tests; and the claimants offer to retake any drug tests, the respondents decision to dismiss was therefore outside the band of reasonable responses.”
Important points that were noted included:
- The employer had not stated in his disciplinary procedure that failing a random drug test would be viewed as gross misconduct;
- The investigatory officer did not give the employee the chance to dispute the drug test in line with their alcohol and drug procedure;
- The dismissing and appeal officer refused to take into consideration all other justifications for the employee having failed the drug test.
On these grounds the dismissal was held as procedurally and substantially unfair.
Employers should be cautious when treating drug test results as black and white. In this situation Mr Bell’s employer failed to recognise the independent evidence presented by the employee. To reduce the risk of a claim, it is important that employers are not closed-minded and look at all the facts of the case before coming to any harsh decisions. In this situation the employee had an exemplary record and it could be argued his employers were too harsh when applying their drug and alcohol policy.
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