How to State Your Stance on Substance Use

How to State Your Stance on Substance Use

As more and more states enact various levels of cannabis protections for employees, it becomes even more important for religious employers to consider and clearly articulate their stance on substance use. While many may assume that most religious employers would hold a similar viewpoint regarding alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis use, this is far from the reality, and assumptions on the part of the applicant, employee, or employer can prove costly.

NOTE: This article discusses legal substance use occurring away from the workplace. No current laws impede an employer’s ability to take steps to ensure a drug-free workplace, such as prohibiting employees from having or using cannabis at work or being impaired on the job.

Being transparent and clearly documenting an employer’s practices and deeply held beliefs is key to establishing a healthy foundation. While there are several aspects to laying a firm foundation, one key element is the Staff Lifestyle Agreement (SLA). An SLA is not a “gotcha” document to put in place in the hopes of catching someone crossing a line (check out this blog post to learn more), which is an especially important note when it comes to substance use.

There is no “one shoe fits all” approach to what is considered appropriate regarding legal substance use—even for religious employers. What one church considers allowable may vary greatly from the church down the street. That’s okay. When it comes to approaching an individual employer’s policy and practice regarding legal substance use, the imperative element is determining their specific stance and documenting such with supporting scripture. Then, beyond documentation, these expectations must be openly communicated across the employment life cycle, from the application process to team building throughout the employment relationship.

Where is the line between personal/professional when it comes to recreational “drugs” like tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana?

That’s for the employer to decide, but it should never be a surprise to an applicant or employee. For this reason, we strongly recommend employers utilize both their Statement of Faith and Staff Lifestyle agreement as discussion tools during the application process. Use the hiring process to identify if an individual is the right fit from a beliefs and worldview standpoint, not just skills and personality. Spend time explaining the foundational beliefs of the employer and any expectations for employees.

Also, be aware of legal limitations surrounding specific topics during the application process. For example, in California employers (with 5+ employees) can’t ask or consider information about an applicant’s or employee’s prior cannabis use. So, while an employer may not be able to ask, “Have you ever used cannabis?” they can still discuss their foundational beliefs, supporting scripture, and employee expectations, and engage in a discussion about the applicant’s views on legal substance use.

Once an employee is hired, the conversation should not cease. Revisit the Statement of Faith and Staff Lifestyle Agreement during onboarding, discuss and review the Staff Handbook, and have employees sign off on each document. Train on these key foundational documents annually. This training helps ensure employees are on the same page as their employer, encourages a healthy culture, and strengthens the employer’s case should adverse employment action need to be taken.

What can an organization ask their employees to abide by?

A religious employer’s Statement of Faith should outline deeply held beliefs and supporting scripture, including “hot topic” issues in our current culture (i.e., marriage, gender identity, sexuality, etc.), as well as topics such as intoxication and self-control. If the religious employer’s beliefs would in any way affect employment, such views should be clearly documented, along with supporting scripture. The Statement of Faith provides the foundation and support for any employer expectations outlined in a Staff Lifestyle Agreement. The Staff Lifestyle Agreement details the specific behavioral and moral expectations of employees and, for faith-based employers who expect an employee’s behavior outside of work to match their beliefs and mission, asks them to commit to living according to the employer’s principles, on and off the clock.

What can an employer NOT ask employees to abide by?

According to Church Law & Tax, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers engaged in commerce and having at least 15 employees from discriminating in any employment decision on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, or religion. The Act permits religious organizations to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion. This exemption permits such organizations to discriminate on the basis of moral or scriptural standards so long as they do consistently and not in a way that adversely impacts employees who are members of a group that is protected under an applicable state or federal discrimination law.” As with most HR topics, consistency and being aware of how decisions interact with other laws is key.

Consistency is huge for creating a healthy work environment and mitigating the risk of discrimination claims. With a few exemptions, expectations outlined in a Staff Lifestyle Agreement should apply to all employees, regardless of race, color, national origin, gender, etc. For example, if abstaining from tobacco is expected for some, it should be the expectation for all. It would be highly problematic if it was okay for males to occasionally have a cigar night, but female employees would be reprimanded. One of the few exceptions to complete consistency is Pastoral staff versus non-Pastoral staff. There may be times when Pastoral staff have a separate or more stringent set of expectations, but consistency, along with a basis in scriptural standards, is imperative.

It is easy to see how the interaction between what may be “legal” and what is deemed “permissible” per scriptural standards can become quite complex. (By the way, if you need legal help, check out The Church Lawyers!)  In conjunction with a Staff Handbook, a Staff Lifestyle Agreement is the next most important employment guideline, allowing the employer to expect alignment with their values. HRMS provides Staff Lifestyle Agreement services, which can also assist in updating your Statement of Faith to include robust protections for “hot topic” issues you may want to address.

Original content by HR Ministry Solutions. This information is provided with the understanding that Payroll Partners is not rendering legal, human resources, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from a lawyer, HR consultant or other professional.