NASCAR and HR: Drug Testing and Second Chances?

While I have pondered bringing my two loves together, HR and NASCAR, the opportunities to do so are few and far in between. But with a life list dream event coming up (attending my first NASCAR event at Atlanta Motor Speedway), I thought it fitting to finally let my dirty little secret out (although, I’m guessing it’s not really a secret to most of you, but I’m obsessed with Sprint Cup racing).

This summer, NASCAR was rocked and blindsided by an out-of-character (for the sport and for the person), drug scandal. Essentially, a Sprint Cup driver, AJ Allmedinger, tested positive for taking Adderall, a banned stimulant during a random drug test. He was immediately suspended and then ultimately fired from his racing team and entered the “road to recovery” program to try and be reinstated by NASCAR (I have a summary below for those who want more background).

Why is it a big deal? I mean baseball and other sports have been dealing with this for so long – what makes it interesting for NASCAR? Um, how about the fact that they drive over 200 miles per hour, or perhaps that they haven’t had a (truly) elite driver test positive before? Believe me, it’s a big deal – and it also provides an interesting perspective about drug policies, employment contracts and second chances.

Drug-Free Work Environment Policies

In just about every job I’ve worked in, there has been a drug-free workplace policy in place. Sometimes it was adhered to strictly, other times it was just another form that was completed. Luckily I was never operating machinery in those instances or around anyone who was, but having a drug-free workplace, is intended to create a safe work environment for all employees; avoiding any unnecessary accidents due to mind-altering substances.

I have seen people come into work while on a substance, and Human Resources (me in this example) were required to do the following (reference: this was at a large Fortune 5+ company):

  • Talk to the employee onsite, in a private environment letting them know the situation and offer them assistance.
  • Hire a car and bring them to a pre-certified drug/alcohol testing facility.
  • If they tested positive, the company would assist with them going into a rehabilitation facility and the Employee Assistance Program along with their insurance plan, would cover the costs. Their position would be held for a pre-determined amount of time, and they would go on leave (typically FMLA leave).
  • No information of any kind was released to their management or colleagues – simply that they were going on leave and their return to work date.

When the employee effectively completed the rehabilitation program, they were welcomed back to work without prejudice (meaning that we would consider the incident over and dealt with). If it happened again, we would still offer the same help in terms of assistance. HOWEVER, if they were underperforming in their position, they would be put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and usually managed out of the organization. Luckily, I have only had this happen to one employee who went through the above situation.

So in a large corporate environment, the employee was granted complete privacy about the situation, provided a safe environment for them to work through their disease appropriate and without consequence, and had a guarantee to return to work if they completed the company’s required actions. Even though they had violated a policy, the main focus was the employee and treating the disease.

What I find interesting about the NASCAR case and other situations like this in sports, is that they approach the situation so far outside of the “traditional corporate” structure, that it is almost offensive for an HR professional. It’s a one and done type of deal – which is not necessarily out of bounds when dealing with a life and death situation, but they athlete loses their livelihood and privacy… and it is treated as a media spectacle versus a serious medical situation.

So which way is “right?”

Should drug policies be a one strike and you’re out situation? Or is there wiggle room? Should employees be treated the same across all organizations, or is it more grossly egregious when dealing with life-threatening situations/occupations? Would you want a second chance if you made a mistake at work, or would you accept that your career and perhaps life’s dreams would be over in an instant by making a bad decision, or listening to a disease?

And my last question goes to the company. In A.J.’s case, Penske Racing. Would you fire the driver, or wait until they have completed the required steps for reinstatement… and then make the determination if he/she should be given a second chance? What do YOU think?

Summary of events for A.J.:

  • He took a substance that is against the rules of employment
  • He tested positive during a random drug test, knowing that drug testing is a part of the competition contract
  • (His PR person royally screwed up the press and aftermath – although this is not relevant, just saying it absolutely soiled the entire situation)
  • He was then fired from his team and banned from competition
  • Upon completion of NASCAR’s Road to Recovery, NASCAR will make the determination if he will be eligible for reinstatement to drive again in the series (and if he is, he then has to find a team to hire him and sponsors to support him)