The unofficial cannabis holiday is here again, but what was once a tightly locked-down illegal substance is now widely used across the U.S. in 36 states that have authorized medical and/or recreational use. With changing laws and attitudes about cannabis use, organizations have either shifted internal policies to comply with current laws or continued enforcing a zero-tolerance policy. while organizations not affected by legal cannabis use continue to assert zero-tolerance policies in compliance to laws.
We reached out to leading communications consultant Cat Colella-Graham, professor at St. Francis College and founding member of Chief, to understand where policies stand today and how organizations are reacting to the changing landscape.
Current policies and communication
With more states legalizing or cities decriminalizing marijuana use, organizations with employees in states where there is some level of legalization must have an internal policy in place to avoid workforce confusion and also avoid setting themselves up for litigation. Employers are realizing they need to create guardrails around cannabis use and communicate to employees what they can or cannot do.
“I don’t think the communication around it is there, and I think that’s part of the challenge,” said Colella-Graham. “I don’t think we’re communicating the way we ought to about these policies.”
The simplest thing organizations can do is admit when they don’t have a policy and convey to employees their intent to follow the law, while emphasizing that employees shouldn’t be working while impaired on any substance. With 36 states currently embracing some level of legalization, there should also be some separation on how organizations address medical versus recreational use as well. For employees with a medical marijuana card, cannabis functions as a legitimately-prescribed medicine that may help them deal with things like inflammation and pain.
Talk of the Biden administration looking to reschedule cannabis and loosen regulations may open up greater legal access across the U.S. For organizations not currently in a legal use state, now is the time to start planning, recommends Colella-Graham. She says not to wait on legalization. But to share with employees the organization’s stance and plans to address use once it is legal.
“The sooner you socialize what you’re going to do, the better because clarity is key,” added Colella-Graham. “One of the challenges we’ve seen in the last three years with the pandemic is trust has been broken and violated so many times, and employees are more skeptical than they used to be. That trust is broken. You’re not only going to hear about it, or they’re going to vote with their feet, but more often than not, they’re going to shout it out on LinkedIn — and that’s going to impact your corporate reputation.”
Colella-Graham also believes that companies also need to reconsider taking a hard stance on employee cannabis use based on personal opinion.
“There’s a difference between having a personal opinion and having a professional stance,” explained Colella-Graham. “With marijuana, because, for many years, it was considered a gateway drug, there are very personalized feelings about it. Maybe they had someone whom they felt had abused it or was considered lazy because they were high all the time. That’s a personal opinion that doesn’t necessarily work in the workplace.”
When it comes to cannabis policy communications for businesses operating across different states — where some employees may be in a legal use state while others are not — comms pros and HR leaders need to ensure they’re communicating consistently and fairly. Colella-Graham says the best way to do that is to think first of your global policy and then your regional applications.
However, organizations should acknowledge that they understand there are many prescriptions employees may take for their health and wellbeing that the organization doesn’t need to know about and remind employees that their privacy is protected. Any questions should be referred to HR for clarification on the policy in their region. This will make it clear to employees how the organization feels about cannabis use and how use could potentially impact their employment.
“I think that’s the best way to do it and remove the stigma,” Colella-Graham said. “There are so many different applications for why people are using it. Just creating a safe space for employees to be able to have those conversations and not feel targeted removes the stigma. One of the most important things any CEO can do.”
Dismantling biases and creating smart policies
To make a business case for better cannabis communications, organizations should address the biases around marijuana in communication protocols while ensuring a safe workplace for everyone. Colella-Graham suggests having an open-door conversation about it to avoid stigmatizing the issue by facing it head-on.
“Companies that are ignoring it are creating liability for themselves,” she explained. “If they decide to get someone tested because they’ve noticed a problem or the managers are afraid to say anything, then that creates a bigger problem than it is. By saying, ‘We don’t want you working impaired. You need to be responsible with however you medicate in alignment with your doctor,’ we need to create a safe and respectful environment for everyone.”
When crafting cannabis policies, organizations should focus on what is expected of employees and what resources will be provided to employees should they need help— because, like alcohol or any other substance, there could be those that abuse it. Express what support is available and what insurance will cover if someone should need help or rehabilitation.
It’s important to start off by dismantling the myths around cannabis use. One way is to create a wellbeing ERG that becomes a safe space to discuss all aspects of employee wellbeing and what they’re doing, whether it’s a daily walk, the latest nutritional guidance or if someone wants to quit drinking.
“By creating those ERGs, it gives an opportunity not only for there to be communities where employees can talk about these things openly, but ultimately socializing these topics to executives that indicates maybe you need an expert to come in and speak to the team,” Colella-Graham said.
That’s exactly what happened for one of Colella-Graham’s consulting clients. As the topic continually came up through a wellbeing ERG, a speaker from the cannabis industry came in to speak to the company about the topic. Leaders were able to see the presentation ahead of time to know what would be discussed, and employees got to ask their questions in front of their CEO. It helped normalize the discussion and made it clear what the organization’s expectations were of employees.
Zero-tolerance and liability issues
Zero-tolerance policies have been a mainstay at workplaces of any substance use or abuse, mainly due to the risks involved for individuals and businesses. But now, with the change in legal status and public opinion, there may be better ways to go than zero tolerance. While there are certainly exceptions for occupations that require people to drive motor vehicles or operate heavy machinery, Colella-Graham believes that when people look at a company taking a hardline stance, they may perceive it as signaling rigidity on other policies too, impacting the candidate experience and how they will feel belonging to the organization.
Organizations will also have to be careful not to make judgment calls on employee behavior. Assuming someone is high at work and terminating them can open an organization to liability for wrongful termination. It’s important to avoid marijuana use stereotypes and biases to really understand what is happening with an employee that may have nothing to do with cannabis.
“Perhaps they aren’t even participating in cannabis whatsoever,” said Colella-Graham. “They could have an illness, and that opens up major liability because assumptions are made around cannabis more so than any other substance out there. I think those assumptions are what create liability and challenges for organizations and for employees.”
If someone shows up to work impaired, organizations can drug test, but a drug test for cannabis is only going to show that the individual has used it in the last 90 days. It’s not going to tell the employer that the employee used cannabis during the workday. That’s where it gets tricky legally because employers can’t dismiss someone for having used it unless in a role that requires them to be clean.
“It’s unlike alcohol where you can see visibly someone being drunk,” Colella-Graham said. “You can’t judge [cannabis use] on behavior and then test them. So many companies are afraid to even touch the cannabis conversation, but frankly, they could be in a lot of trouble if they don’t. Because the biggest lawsuit cases for wrongful termination around substance abuse with the biggest wins have been around cannabis.”
Make it clear to employees they shouldn’t be operating in an unsafe or disrespectful manner. Let employees know you’re going to rely on them to be drug-free at work and could randomly test at any point as a good blanket policy.
“I’m glad we’re still having this conversation, and I hope it happens more than just on 4/20 every year,” said Colella-Graham. “But I think it’s tough for people who feel shame and feel sort of ‘other than’ in the workplace. For many people, it’s far better to have a gummy than to take any other substance for anxiety and depression. But more than that, it might actually contribute to discord in the workplace. I think we really need to think about it holistically, and that’s why I’m glad we’re talking about it.”
Jon Minnick is a conference producer, awards event showman and workplace wellness writer. He watched a good friend struggle for years with anxiety who then used cannabis to cope.