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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Pissed off

(updated below)

Last week, my company asked me to give them a cup full of my pee.

Pee.
One of my new job duties.
This is not normally part of my job. I sit at a computer most of the day and move bits around; when I do make trips to the bathroom, I return empty-handed. I don't operate heavy machinery, fly a jet plane or investigate drug dealers. There's about as much point in drug testing a Web designer as requiring a janitor to take a typing test.

Naturally, I told them to go fuck themselves. Not in those words, of course...though I was tempted. After a year's worth of 60 to 80 hour work weeks, I'd like to at least get a recommendation out of this job, or even some future consulting work. So we've managed to work out an amicable separation.

But I'm offended and infuriated that a company that operates television stations would institute mandatory, company-wide drug testing. That they would so callously invade the privacy of hundreds of employees, leaving them no other options than to resign or, more likely, be fired. No matter that some of these employees have been working for the stations recently acquired by my company for 10, 15, 20 years. Quality service and loyalty to the company are meaningless compared to the overwhelming need to collect their urine.

It's easy for me to walk away. I have no wife, no children — only a cat and a car to support. As an Internet nerd, I'm eminently employable and have no doubt I'll find a new job before my last four weeks here is up. But I know that there are many people who likewise find these tests to be a invasion of their privacy but don't have to the option of standing on their principles. If you're a television production engineer in Columbia, MO, there's not exactly a lot of other places to jump to.

Many executives absolutely love the idea of drug testing — it seems like a great no-lose, cover-your-ass proposition. Let's test everyone, and then if one of our employees is ever involved in an accident and found to be under the influence, we can point to our policy and say we did everything we could. Plus, it makes management feel like good, responsible citizens who are doing their part in the War On Drugs.

In reality, drug testing is a huge waste of resources with almost no tangible benefit. Most harder drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, pass through the body within 1-2 days, leaving no trace. So the only drug that testing reliably detects is that scourge of workplaces everywhere, marijuana. And of course there's no test for the drug that has caused more lost productivity, missed days and workplace accidents than any other — alcohol.

If companies can make the case that they should be able to drug test their employees, than what's to stop them from firing someone for off-hours drinking? Smoking and bad eating habits can affect insurance premiums and lead to lost work time from health complications, so they're out, too. If you don't like it, you can go somewhere else — except the conglomerate down the block has the same policies, sorry.

Many visions of the future hold corporations to be as big a threat to our future liberties as centralized government. What better way to start than by regulating employees' behavior outside the workplace?

My whole body just recoils from the idea of giving a genetic sample to my employer. The thought of taking a break from sitting at my computer to drive off to a lab, pee in a cup and hand it over to someone revolts me. I would no sooner take a drug test at work than I would consent to a search of my home without a warrant or allow the government to tell me what I can and cannot say.

What possible right does my company have to this information? A drug test can tell many other things besides whether the person has gotten high in the past couple weeks. It can indicate what prescription drugs he is taking — many employers might be interested to learn which employees are on anti-depressants, or have heart conditions. And of course there's no better way than a urine test to detect pregnancy.

Unions are traditionally the best bulwark against employers' infringements like these. But union participation is a dying thing, leaving most workers unprotected against employer invasions of their privacy. And as much as it burns my biscuits, I don't think government regulation is the answer; it almost never is.

The only real hedge that I can see against policies like these is if companies know that by implementing them, they will lose talented staff. Unfortunately, most people are unable or unwilling to sacrifice a job in a stand for privacy rights. And so, in the same quixotic way I don't shop at Wal-Mart or buy CDs produced by members of the RIAA, I will never work for a company that drug tests (at least until that fighter-pilot gig comes through). What matter it will make, I don't know. But I can't control others' behavior; I can only do what I think is right and hope it makes some small difference.

I'm sure my soon-to-be-former bosses think I'm just a drug-addled loser who doesn't want to fail a test, but I leave it to the ACLU to sum up why this is a matter of principle.
There was a time in the United States when your business was also your boss's business. At the turn of the century, company snooping was pervasive and privacy almost nonexistent. Your boss had the right to know who you lived with, what you drank, whether you went to church, or to what political groups you belonged.

With the growth of the trade union movement and heightened awareness of the importance of individual rights, American workers came to insist that life off the job was their private affair not to be scrutinized by employers. But major chinks have begun to appear in the wall that has separated life on and off the job, largely due to the advent of new technologies that make it possible for employers to monitor their employees' off-duty activities. Today, millions of American workers every year, in both the public and private sectors are subjected to urinalysis drug tests as a condition of getting or keeping a job.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes indiscriminate urine testing because the process is both unfair and unnecessary. It is unfair to force workers who are not even suspected of using drugs, and whose job performance is satisfactory, to "prove" their innocence through a degrading and uncertain procedure that violates personal privacy. Such tests are unnecessary because they cannot detect impairment and, thus, in no way enhance an employer's ability to evaluate or predict job performance. Here are the ACLU's answers to some questions frequently asked by the public about drug testing in the workplace.

UPDATE:

Here's my letter of resignation, carefully worded to keep everyone happy:

"As a lifelong member of the ACLU and a staunch advocate for individual rights, I feel that mandatory drug testing is an unnecessary invasion of personal privacy. While I understand [Company]'s reasons for instituting such a policy, and respect their right to do so, it goes against some of my deepest-held personal beliefs. Consequently, please accept my resignation effective Oct. 6, 2006.

"This was a very difficult decision for me to make; I have enjoyed both my job and the opportunity to work with such a talented and dedicated group of people. I look forward to working with the company to make this transition go smoothly, and wish everyone involved continued success."

7 Comments:

Anonymous tc said...

Buck, my hat's off to you. I would never dream of giving a company that uses mandatory drug testing the benefit of my talents. You did precisely the correct thing.

Tom

Blogger Mrs. B said...

Well, this is not what I thought this blog was going to be about when I got your message to read your blog today about pee. Congratulations on standing your ground. You are a firm man Mr. Issleb. Good luck with the job search. Oh yeah and I like peeing. Peeing is great. I do it often...more than most. But I do agree it is wrong for a company to check out what is in your pee.

Anonymous johnny5 said...

Hell yeah! It's not every day that we are given such an opportunity to show what we are really made of. Good luck with the job search. Hey, I might be able to help with this one... we should get in touch. Oh, and my company has never asked for my pee.

Blogger Mandasaurus said...

When I was little my father, who was a teacher at Dixon High School, decorated my Little People schoolhouse with union stickers. I might have toddled along a picketline with him, if my mom would have let me.

Your talents are an asset and you shouldn't let a company who doesn't respect your privacy have 'em. In fact, Buck, your experience has made me better at holding my own as an employee. I'm taking sick leave for a doctor's appointment this week and guess whose business that is?! No one's. My health is a private matter, between me and my doctor.

It's kinda freaky. Suddenly, we're the ones who have to stand up and say what's right. When did that happen?

I'm happy to see such a good example.

Blogger J-Flash said...

Twice now I've taken piss tests to get a job, and never really been happy about it, save that I slightly understand something about the liability of me roaming about on crack.

But I whole-heartedly support you. If it's possible, I'm proud dude. Good, righteous stand.

Anonymous P. Pirx said...

Buck, you're absolutely right in your indignation. Only, you don't yet realize who the main culprit here is. No, these are not the corporations, those by and large don't care what you do in your spare time as long as they don't pay for it and you remain productive (granted, there are control freeks, at times, among the executive class, but still...)

The main source of this nonsense is the abomination which we call "the American Civil Law", as interpreted by modern courts. As long as anybody can sue anybody else for virtually anything, with "kind hearted" juries upholding the "deep pockets" doctrine, corporations have to face the fact that they may be found liable for anything they employes may be involved in, even if in no way related to their work.

You can imagine the courtroom scene: "Members of the jury, my client, Mr. Doe, was crossing the street at the corner of Wabash and Monroe, minding his own business, when he was struck by a car driven by Mr. E. Vildoer, an employee of the firm B. A. & Stards. Mr. Vildoer left his workplace few minutes ago and was on his way to lunch. A blood test revealed presense of marijuana and one cannot preclude the possibility that said marijuana was smoked or otherwise consumed on the firm's premises. Now, honorable jurors, my client, Mr. Doe, is a man of limited means and he suffered a great damage, including pain and suffering the value of which is immesurable. Clearly he deserves an appropriate recompensation. And, while Mr. Vildoer's assets are limited, B. A. & Stards, are rich, very rich. So, shouldn't they carry some financial responsibilty for the behavior of their employee, a behavior which they did nothing to stop?"

And, which way do you think the verdict will go? And, as long as this kind of nonsense continues, we'll be facing more and more limitations and annoyances, as everybody attempts to keep their ass covered.

This is not limited to corporations, by the way. Here is a recent example. As we all know, every year couple million new students arrive at the nation's colleges and one shouldn't be surprised that some fraction, from this huge amount, is a tad unstable. And so it occurs, every year, that some of those, faced with the new, unfamiliar circumstances, break down and attempt a suicide. Some even succeed. A sad thing, whenever it happens, but it was around for as long as universities themselves. And it was always understood that, while colleges bear some responsibility when it comes to protecting students from other students, they cannot reasonably be expected to protect them from themselves. Until recent times. Recently, though, some courts decided that, after all, universities may be liable when a student commits suicide since they should've been observant enough to see it coming. So, guess what happens next? Students who attempted a suicide (and, fortunately, failed) found themselves, on return from the emergency room, barred from their dorms and ejected from their colleges. A solution, of sorts, the college makes sure that "if this waco tries to kill himself again, it'll not be our responsibility". And the next obvious step will be to deny acceptance to anybody who displays the slightest traces of depressive behavior or, if missed in the early screening, the rejection of any such person once said traces are identified. Will this decrease the number of suicides on campuses? Yes, for sure. Will this decrease the total number of suicides in this age bracket? Anybody wants to place bets?:-)

So, ultimately, the "virtuos universities" will behave the same as the "evil corporations", when placed in the same position. No big surprise here. Both, ultimately, are subject to the vagaries of the same legal system. And the legal system, by and large, is what we, the people, want it to be. So, ultimately, the accusing finger we're pointing, points back at us. Our problem is, we want something that is impossible, and we're not going to get it.

Freedom and responsibility are tightly connected. Can we craft a system in which somebody else, not we, is responsible for our actions? Yes, we can, but inevitably we lose a comparable part of our freedoms in the process. Cannot have it both ways.

Blogger Buck B. said...

Thanks all of you for your kind words. As much as I say I would would never work for a drug-testing company, it still isn't easy to leave a place you're comfortable at — especially since I initially thought I'd be gone by the end of the week. And yeah, the first thing I thought of was that this was an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and stand up for my principles. Now let's hope I never have to do it again!

Pirx, at last we agree on something. Although I am leery of tort reform, which mostly seem to involve putting caps on damages (sometimes large damage rulings are the only way to correct unethical corporate behavior), clearly our civil litigation system is out of control.

And I'd also agree that the problem is with society; the legal system is what juries make of it. Baby Boomers, and certainly their children, have grown up with an overwhelming feeling of entitlement — if you have the ability to wring money out of an accident, it's your right to do so. And this is coupled with, as you say, a complete an utter unwillingness to accept responsibly for your own actions. Every mistake, every injury, every illness must be someone's fault. Nothing can ever be just an accident. If a plane goes down because it got hit by a meteor, the airline will be sued by 50 people complaining they didn't install the correct meteor-deflection devices. Every mischance has become a lottery ticket, every slip down the stairs a chance to profit from the largess of a jury of your peers.

Yeah, frivolous lawsuits piss me off too. I don't see a solution to the problem, though. And I'm certainly not willing to write off abuse of employees' rights as an acceptable risk-management device.

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Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.