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The conflict between organizations demanding drug-free workplaces (and testing to be sure they get them) and individual rights to privacy and freedom center most discussions of drugs at work. There’s another area of debate, however. What happens when your employer wants you to use drugs?
Take the case of Amy Winehouse. Everyone interested in music—and many who aren’t—know all about her. Every time she gets photographed inhaling something that looks illegal or gets videoed tripping out of a party with her dress slipping down her chest, the images, the sound, and the story race across TV channels and the social web and she’s back in circulation. People talk, remember her songs, ask if she’s got anything new coming out, and wonder when she’ll bring her notorious road show to their town. Anyone who didn’t know better would be tempted to suspect that the whole thing was fake, a giant scam dreamed up by a genius publicist to get Winehouse all the free attention today’s connected world can generate.
Pop stars tend to have short shelf lives and long lists of people making money off their fame. Those on the periphery of Winehouse’s success—her managers and promoters and publicists and lawyers and accountants—all know that she probably won’t be providing their income for long, and it’s in their financial interest to maximize what she can give while she still can. Will her body and life suffer from her cocaine use? Yes, but most of that damage probably won’t register until after the flow of money she’s producing has slowed to a trickle. Given that reality, her corporate sponsors have little professional reason to want to intervene in her life to help her slow down the intake. Just the opposite, actually.
Something similar occurs in the world of professional sports. Anyone who’s watched professional football or soccer players has witnessed this scene: the athlete down and writhing on the field, clutching frantically at a knee or ankle. Teammates slink away, concerned about their companion but also thanking God it wasn’t them. Trainers hurry onto the field. Commercials interrupt the drama. TV returns and the game goes on. Then, five minutes later, he’s back like nothing happened. Commentators approvingly acknowledge the guy’s toughness. Advertisers are relieved because viewers stay fixed to the screen. The team owners in their box are happy to be getting their money’s worth from their employees. For every one of them, drugs and the workplace are an excellent mix.
There are two broad categories of organizationally sanctioned employee drug abuse. The first is the employee doing it, and managers don’t get in their way. The second category belongs to those organizations actively encouraging drug use. It goes without saying that the next higher degree of involvement: sneaking drugs into an employee’s drink or diet is both illegal (a form of assault) and an unethical breach of individual privacy and freedom rights.
Complicit organizationsWith respect to employee drug use, an organization that knows employees are using drugs and doesn’t intervene . know employees are using drugs and don’t intervene—they may suspend drug testing or refuse to initiate it—because the use suits the organization’s interest. This could be the football coach who just doesn’t want to know how his lineman suddenly exploded with muscle over the summer. Or the complicity could be for the young lawyer in the firm who works to all hours and always seems peppy and alert. One day someone may notice a pill case dropping out of her purse, but no one’s going to ask any questions as long as she keeps cranking out those billable hours.
Should questions be asked? One answer is simply “No.” The football player and lawyer are free individuals pursuing their own welfare as they see fit and as they’re free to do. They’re not hurting anyone else along the way and should be left alone. This argument, based on the values of individual rights and freedom, is very strong.
Things become more complicated, however, in a case like Amy Winehouse’s, one where she’s clearly being damaged by her abuse. The root question is straightforward: when should I go out of my way—or perhaps even harm my own interests—to help out someone else? If I’m Winehouse’s manager, and I’m making money off her publicity-grabbing drug episodes, at what point do I need to say the money isn’t worth it, and my human responsibility for the well-being of those around me requires that I try to do something (like send her to rehab)? This scenario involves Samaritanism, which itself makes up an entire area of ethical study.
SamaritanismThe ethical responsibility to step in and help others when it’s possible to help and when the personal cost is not disproportionate to the good that can be done.—taken from the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan—is the ethical responsibility to step in and help others. Most duty theorists contend that we have an unavoidable responsibility to help others in need as long as the cost to ourselves is not disproportionately burdensome and as long as there’s some possibility of actually aiding. Taking a simple example, a person who can’t swim has no responsibility to jump in after a drowning man, but Michael Phelps would have an obligation to get in the water unless the flow was so violent and fast that even he would be powerless to help. As for the manager faced with a self-destructing client, it’s hard to see—from this ethical perspective—what could erase his obligation to help Winehouse clean up since the only thing he has to lose is money.
Enabling organizationsWith respect to employee drug use, an organization that actively encourages, or at least facilitates, drug use by employees. actively encourage or at least facilitate drug use by employees because it serves their interest. Of course almost all organizations engage in this facilitating to some small extent. The New Year’s office party where drinks are free and free-flowing is, at bottom, a drug event where alcohol hopefully washes away some of the resentments and angers accumulated over the preceeding twelve months.
More aggressively, many occupations (especially those directly involving selling) require employees to be cool—and look cool—under pressure. This can be difficult. A story from the Atlantic magazine discusses beta-blockers, which are essentially blood-pressure medications that coincidentally reduce the outward appearance of nervousness: they help you avoid the sweat beading on the forehead, trembling hands, and dry mouth.Carl Elliott, “In Defense of the Beta Blocker,” Atlantic, August 2008, accessed June 1, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/08/in-defense-of- the-beta-blocker/6961/. As the story notes, beta-blockers aren’t nearly as potent or dangerous as the doping of North Korean Olympic athletes, but they’re not a harmless over-the-counter medication either.
Beta-blockers carry real risks. Even granting the risk, though, it’s not hard to imagine that more than one supervisor has found a way to get the Atlantic magazine story into the e-mail of an employee who’s had a history of tightening up at key moments. In fact, the business consultant Keith Ferrazzi once made the recommendation on his web page, but then withdrew it after receiving complaints: “I originally included a reader’s recommendation of the beta blocker Propranolol in this list of public speaking tips, but have removed it after taking to heart the concern of many KF.com readers.”Keith Ferrazzi, “10 Tips to Banish Your Public Speaking Fear for Good,” Keith Ferrazzi: Business is Human. Relationships Power Growth (blog), August 26, 2009, accessed June 1, 2011, http://www.keithferrazzi.com/personal-branding/10-tips-to-banish- your-public-speaking-fear-for-good/.
Somewhat more ominously, there’s the infamous case of the Studio 54 busboys at the height of the club’s popularity. Blonde (frequently) and naked (usually) except for tight spandex shorts, they were plied with drugs to increase their energy level and commitment to customer service in all imaginary ways. The busboys, it must be noted, were more than willing participants, but the fact that everyone agreed doesn’t necessarily make the scene ethical. One useful tool for evaluating this exuberant but also troubling situation is the already developed notion of informed consent. In order for the case to be made that drugging willing employees is acceptable, it will help to fulfill the following requirements:
The fact that an employee makes an informed decision to use performance-enhancing drugs at work doesn’t rinse an enabling employer of all ethical responsibility. Business is just like any other aspect of life in the sense that employers, like everyone else, have a duty of Samaritanism or beneficence—that is, a responsibility to look out for the long-term welfare of others so long as their own welfare isn’t significantly affected. Further, the responsibility to respect the humanity of others and not use them as a simple tool in our schemes (to see them as ends and not means) translates as a demand that organizations advocating internal drug use clarify what their own motives are. Finally, if the drugs are illegal, the possibility that people will end up in jail needs to be factored into consideration.
Going beyond the ethical discussion involving only employer and employee, there are a number of broader and difficult questions that could be pressed, especially by proponents of utilitarian theory. If right and wrong is ultimately defined by the general public welfare, it may be difficult to justify drugs in the workplace even if employer and employee wholeheartedly agree to use them. What happens, for example, at other workplaces? In the highly competitive field of professional sports, it’s clear that when one team starts using some substance, others will have to join in or get beaten on the playing field. In other occupations the need to imitate to succeed may not be so immediate, but there still may be an undertow. If Amy Winehouse is eating up all the free publicity in the music business with her drug-fueled exploits, aren’t other musicians going to feel pressured to follow along? If a sales team at Smith’s Tires is using beta-blockers and winning deals, aren’t the sellers at Jones’ Tires going to start feeling the need to swallow some pills? If the effects, finally, of drug use in the workplace go beyond that particular spot, then the effects on those outsiders need to be accounted for in order for a final decision to be well justified.