​Many employers still concerned about legalization of cannabis: Survey

Human resources has major role to play before Oct. 17: Experts
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/09/2018
Cannabis in the workplace
Small bottles containing cannabis seeds are seen at the Balkannabis Expo 2018, in Athens, Greece, on June 2, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Now that Canadians have an official date — Oct. 17 — when they will be able to legally purchase and consume recreational marijuana, employers should be preparing for the potential impact on issues such as occupational health and safety, productivity and attendance management.

But a strong majority (85 per cent) remain concerned about the implications for the workplace, according to a Conference Board of Canada report released in June. Twenty-five per cent are very concerned, 27 per cent are concerned and 33 per cent are slightly concerned, found the survey of 198 employers.

The top five concerns for employers ahead of impending legalization include workplace safety (57 per cent) — especially in safety-sensitive roles — impairment or intoxication at work (39 per cent), increased usage of cannabis inside and outside work (21 per cent), testing (20 per cent), accommodation and disclosure, and cost (both 15 per cent), said Blazing the Trail: What the Legalization of Cannabis Means for Canadian Employers.

“Where most organizations are worried right now is sort of (if) the social, casual person who hasn’t been participating or partaking may start in this new realm,” said Bryan Benjamin, vice-president of leadership and HR research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

“Employers are just recognizing that they’ve got to be comfortable not actually having all the answers going into this.”

The rapid shift in cannabis legalization has occurred absent of an appropriate educational journey for Canadians, according to Reva Seth, CEO of Business of Cannabis in Toronto.

“We’re going from employers seeing this as a drug to ‘maybe it’s a medicine, maybe it’s a recreational drug,’” she said. “There’s a real education gap in terms of how HR feels.”

“It’s a giant void right now… It’s a giant shift that people aren’t fully prepared for — not employers and not employees,” said Seth. “It’s going to take a lot of iterations before we get there… (and) there’s a lot for industry to do in terms of educating employers.”

Modern cannabis is different from most people’s understanding in terms of products, strains and ingestion methods, she said.

“This is all new for most Canadians,” said Seth. “Most Canadians are not actually cannabis users.”

Need for leadership

HR should become educated on cannabis, starting with medical cannabis and concluding with how the organization treats it going forward, she said.

Many organizations are still working on this issue as information continues to evolve.

“People will look to HR to really lead that. I think it’s a good moment for HR departments to take on one of the big pressing changes,” said Seth.

“Step two is start to step into the stigma issues and look for potential situations where intervention by HR can prevent this transition from being difficult.”

The stigma associated with cannabis use and the concern people have about discussing and sharing their own habits is very real and very powerful, she said. “HR teams need to be highly aware of this as they navigate forward.”

Workplace culture and conversation will need to shift quickly, and HR can help by “stepping into the awkward conversations,” said Seth.

“This is what HR does best, is take on those messy situations, from dating in the workplace to everything in-between.”

“It will be confusing and unsettling at first for people… It’s such a shift,” she said. “So many things will just continue as is, because those who were using, whether recreationally or for medical reasons, will continue. That’s not going to be different.”

Rather than viewing the subject with trepidation, HR would be wise to embrace cannabis legalization as an opportunity to lead globally, said Seth.

HR has an important role to play in furthering the conversation within workplaces, in terms of setting policy, restructuring health benefits or advocating for new cultural norms amongst employees, said Lori Casselman, chief health advisor at League, a digital health insurance provider in Toronto.

“Now, we have a better understanding of dates, they’re formalized,” she said. “Employers do have some catch-up to do, but it’s not overly complex.”

Updating policies

A thorough risk assessment of individual organizations is a recommended action for HR —understanding current policy and identifying potential exposure or loopholes, said Benjamin.

Once educated, HR must ensure managers and employees are also brought up to speed through group sessions or pamphlet materials, he said.

“As much broad education as companies can provide to their employees, the better service they are doing just to make them better-equipped overall. It will help them at work, but also outside of work.”

It’s important to remember many organizations are already dealing with recreational cannabis users — just not officially, said Benjamin, adding employers should ensure they have an appropriate alcohol and drug policy in place.

“There is a lot of concern around policy: ‘Do we have the right policies in place? If we don’t, do we have enough time to build new policies? If we build new policies and then find out new things post-Oct. 17, can we revise them again?’”

The University of Toronto recently enacted a “Fitness for Work” guideline as part of its commitment to providing a safe workplace, updating a long-standing expectation that employees arrive at work sober, and remain that way throughout the workday.

“While the guideline is new, it mostly serves to reaffirm employee responsibilities surrounding impairment in the workplace,” said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, the university’s vice-president of HR and equity.

But fitness-for-work policies that include randomized drug testing conflict with privacy rights in terms of Canadian law, as cannabis impairment testing requires further evolution, said Benjamin.

“In Canada, for the vast majority of organizations, that’s just not something that they can’t even consider right now.”

While medicinal marijuana usage may require accommodation by employers, the approach towards recreational marijuana will be specific to individual employers, said Casselman.

“Zero tolerance would typically apply as it relates to any type of substance abuse in a workplace that could impair judgment or ability to perform.”

While there’s a “lack of understanding or uncertainty around how to manage this process” for a majority of employers, HR can help by simplifying timelines and actions, she said.

“It helps to decrease that feeling of being overwhelmed and unprepared, and it really simplifies the steps,” said Casselman.

“It helps to eliminate the fear of the unknown… This can be much more straightforward with appropriate guidance.”

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