What Happens After a Failed Drug Test? An Employer's Guide

Hayley Harrison
May 06, 2024
6 min read

Drug testing programs can help employers promote public safety, support the ongoing success of their organization, and support compliance with federal, state, and local laws. Many job candidates and employees will pass drug tests, but others may not. It’s important to know what to do in the event of a failed drug test, which may help you make informed employment decisions and maintain compliance.

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Types of drug screenings

The most common types of drug screenings for employment are urine, hair, and oral fluid. Here’s a look at each type:

    • Urine testing uses a urine sample to check for metabolites—trace residues that stay in a person’s system after drug use—and the testing window for substances varies. For some drugs, metabolites may be detected in urine for up to four days after use. With chronic use, the testing window may be extended to up to a few weeks.

    • Hair testing uses a sample of a candidate’s hair to check for drug metabolites. Typically, tests using body hair may show evidence of drug use within the past 12 months, while tests using scalp hair indicate drug use within the past three months. 

    • Oral fluid testing, also called mouth swab testing, uses a saliva sample to check for compounds present in drugs. A positive oral fluid test indicates drug use within one or two days of testing.

Employers may require drug screenings for candidates as part of pre-employment screening or for existing employees. Employee drug testing may be performed routinely, or the employer may institute a random drug test policy (if permitted by law). Federal, state, and local laws may require drug testing for some types of positions or place restrictions on when and how employers conduct drug tests.

What happens if a candidate fails a pre-employment drug test?

If a candidate fails a pre-employment drug test, the consequences depend on the employer’s policies and federal, state, and local laws. 

A failed drug test means that a candidate has tested positive for a substance. The positive result usually means that a candidate has a history of drug use—however, a false positive can occur. As a result, the employer may wish to investigate further before determining how to proceed after a failed pre-employment drug test.

An employer may allow the candidate to explain the failed drug test or have a medical professional review the results. When performing a drug test with a qualified background check partner, like Checkr, a certified medical review officer (MRO) may conduct a review whenever the need for clarification or additional testing arises, helping you feel more confident about the results. 

In some cases, federal, state, and local laws will dictate what happens after a failed drug test. Certain laws may prohibit candidates who test positive for certain drugs from working in particular positions. For example, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires that a candidate for certain commercial driver’s license (CDL) driver roles pass a drug test before operating a commercial vehicle. If a candidate for an applicable truck driver position fails a drug test, an employer may be required to disqualify them from employment.

Additionally, compliance regulations may determine how an employer responds when a candidate fails a drug test during pre-employment screening. For example, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), an employer working with a background check company must notify candidates that a failed drug test may disqualify them. They should also provide a “Summary of Rights,” outlining the steps a candidate can take to dispute a false positive drug test if the results disqualify them from employment. State or local jurisdictions may impose additional requirements, as well. You may wish to consult your legal counsel for more information on complying with drug testing laws in your industry and relevant jurisdictions.

Employer policies may also dictate the consequences of failing a drug test. A well-communicated drug testing policy, which includes when to disqualify a candidate based on a failed drug test, can help support consistent, fair adjudication of drug test results. Your organizational policies may also reflect compliance considerations and help your team mitigate risk. 

What happens if an employee fails a drug test at work?

A failed drug test at work means that a current employee tested positive for a substance through a urine, oral fluid, hair, or other drug test. Common potential consequences of failing a drug test at work are termination, suspension, recommended substance use disorder treatment, or other disciplinary actions.

Although positive test results often accurately indicate a history of drug use, a false positive may also occur. Due to this possibility, employers may want to conduct further inquiries, request a medical review, or allow for a re-test before determining the consequences of a failed drug test. 

Employers must comply with federal, state, and local laws when making employment decisions based on a failed employee drug test. For example, the FMCSA mandates that CDL drivers who fail a drug test at work receive a suspension until they complete a return-to-duty process under the supervision of a Department of Transportation (DOT)-qualified substance abuse professional and test negative on a return-to-duty drug test.

The federal FCRA law requires employers who use a background check company, like Checkr, to notify employees of the potential for adverse action before conducting a drug test and advise them of their rights to dispute the results if they fail the drug test. 

State and local laws may also give employees who fail drug tests certain rights; some laws require employers to provide employees with the opportunity to explain the reason for the test or to consent to a rehabilitation program before they can take disciplinary action. If you’re unsure which laws are in effect in your area, consult your legal counsel.

Employer policies also determine what happens when an employee fails a drug test. In the interest of public safety, policies may require a temporary employment suspension or termination.

What can cause people to fail a drug test?

People can fail a drug test if they have recently used or ingested a substance included in the test, such as illicit or prescription drugs. Sometimes, eating certain foods or taking medications that produce similar metabolites to the tested drugs may result in a false positive.

Failed drug test due to illicit drug use

A failed drug test caused by illicit drug use occurs when a candidate or employee tests positive for an illegal drug. Drug tests check for metabolites or active compounds of certain drugs, and metabolites may be detected for hours, days, weeks, or months depending on the type of test. Different tests will also screen for a varying range of substances, often five or ten “panels” (each panel representing a unique substance).

A 5-panel drug test typically screens for:

    • Amphetamines

    • Cannabinoids (Marijuana)

    • Cocaine

    • Opiates

    • Phencyclidine (PCP)

In jurisdictions where testing job candidates or employees for cannabinoids is now restricted following marijuana legalization, 4-panel drug tests are becoming more common.

A 10-panel drug test typically screens for:

    • Amphetamines

    • Cocaine

    • Cannabinoids (Marijuana)

    • Opiates

    • Phencyclidine (PCP)

    • Barbiturates

    • Benzodiazepines

    • Propoxyphene (Percoset)

False positive drug test

A failed drug test may also occur due to a false positive, when a substance found in a prescription or over-the-counter-medication, dietary supplement, personal care product, or food gets mistakenly flagged as a metabolite or compound that indicates illicit drug use.

Many medications can cause false positive drug tests. For example, the pain relievers naproxen and ibuprofen may result in a failed drug test for barbiturates or cannabinoids. Foods containing poppy seeds and some baby wash products are also common causes of false positive results.

The potential for false positives leads many employers to look for a background check partner that can provide a medical review process for drug tests that return positive or inconclusive results. 

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Does failing a drug test disqualify candidates from employment?

Whether failing a drug test disqualifies candidates from employment or not depends on employer policies and legal requirements. For regulated positions, federal, state, and local laws may require employers to remove a candidate from consideration due to a failed employment drug test. When not required by law, employer policies will dictate whether a failed drug test results in disqualification.

Does a failed drug test show up on a background check?

Whether a failed drug test shows up on a background check depends on the scope of the background check and the circumstances surrounding the failed background check. If a candidate applies for a job and the employer orders a drug test as a part of a pre-employment screening, the employer will receive the results from the drug test.

Whether an employer will find out about a previous failed drug test from an employment or pre-employment screening with another job is a different story. In most jurisdictions, employers are not required to report a failed background check to law enforcement or any government agency. As a result, a failed drug test may not appear on a background check. However, there are times when a failed drug test might appear on a background check due to the testing being related to employment in a regulated industry or a candidate’s criminal history. 

Commercial transportation is an example of this kind of regulated industry. The FMCSA generally requires employers to report failed drug tests to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse Database, which they must check before extending an offer of employment. As a result, a failed drug test could appear in a background check for a CDL driver position.

A failed drug test may also show up on a criminal background check if the testing resulted in a criminal conviction. For example, if a person is on probation as part of a sentence for a criminal conviction, a failed drug test may put them in violation of the terms of their probation, resulting in sanctions that could show up on a background check.

If an employer terminated a person for a failed drug test, a background check that includes employment verification may reveal this fact, depending on the questions asked during the process and what information employers may disclose in their jurisdiction. Some states permit employers to disclose the reason for a termination, but others don’t.

How long do failed drug screens stay on record?

The length of time a failed drug screen stays on a record depends on the employer and the type of record. Records from a failed DOT drug test remain in the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse Database for five years or until a person resolves the violation through the return-to-duty process and follow-up testing. Employers who are not required to store failed drug test information may or may not store records in accordance with the law and employee or candidate consent.

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Frequently asked questions about failed drug tests

Learn more about failed drug tests by reviewing the answers to these frequently asked questions.

Does a failed drug test go on your record

The impact of a failed drug test on your record varies based on your job, industry, and test results. In regulated industries, such as commercial transportation, employers are required to report positive drug test results to government agencies like the FMCSA. As an employee, a failed drug test may or may not be entered into your employee record maintained by your employer. 

How do you know if you failed a drug test?

If you fail a drug test, you will be notified by the employer who requested the test. If the employer partners with a background check company, like Checkr, to perform the test, they will notify you in writing if the failed drug test results in adverse action. This action may include disqualification from employment or disciplinary action.

How long after failing a drug test can you retest?

After failing a drug test, an employee may have the opportunity to retest, depending on the employer’s policies and the type of drug test performed. Ask the employer who administered the test for retesting guidelines after a failed pre-employment drug screen or failed drug test.

How do you explain a failed drug test?

Explaining a failed drug test depends on the circumstances that led to the positive drug test results. When approaching how to explain a failed drug test, strive for honesty and transparency. If you believe the test result is a false positive, you may ask your employer what options are available to retest or have the results reviewed by a medical officer.

Learn more about employment drug testing with Checkr

Employment drug testing can help employers protect public and workplace safety, and comply with federal, state, or local laws. But running a drug testing program can be time-consuming for human resources teams and leave your organization open to compliance risks as you navigate changing drug testing laws.

Checkr helps make drug testing faster, simpler, and more accurate. At Checkr, you can select from a variety of employment drug tests, such as standard multi-panel and DOT-compliant screenings, to make the hiring process more efficient. Our centralized dashboard and easy ordering workflow speeds up testing, improving the candidate experience and potentially reducing your total screening costs. You have the option to select from rapid, on-site drug testing or our network of over 6,100 labs. Get started with Checkr today.

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The resources and information provided here are for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult your own counsel for up-to-date legal advice and guidance related to your practices, needs, and compliance with applicable laws.

About the author

Hayley Harrison writes about a wide range of business topics and best practices, including background checks, candidate experience, and recruitment and retention. Her work includes educational articles, e-books, and blog posts.

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