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Bracing for workplace cannabis?

Leaders need to seek to understand first, before judging
A man smokes marijuana during the annual 4/20 marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 20. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

By Suanne Nielsen

Almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of Canadian employers are not prepared for the legalization of cannabis, according to a survey conducted by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in partnership with Business of Cannabis (BofC) and Public Services Health & Safety Association (PSHSA.

Most of those who’ve weighed in on the issue concur that HR has had very little time to prepare their organizations for the impact of such a legislation. So, is there an urgency for HR to prepare? Yes and no.

At its simplest level, it’s a requirement for HR to keep abreast of all the laws that are changing, and, therefore, adjust policies. For many employers, especially professional service organizations, all they might have to do is update existing policies around alcohol, drugs usage and smoking in the workplace or during work hours. They might also need to revise disability plans, if they haven’t already, to allow for marijuana to be used for medicinal treatment of certain conditions.

The other aspect of HR preparedness entails training organizational leaders, so they can answer questions employees might have. These updates are baseline and easy to do.

Most organizations say people can’t consume recreationally in the workplace, unless they have a valid medical reason for it. Cigarette and alcohol consumers cannot claim any validity on medical grounds.

But now there is another scenario for HR to consider: It’s not uncommon for an employee to have the occasional drink outside the office during lunch and come back to the office — this could now potentially extend to smoking a joint during lunch and coming back to office.

In most cases, these are infrequent and small occurrences — not an issue. The issue is when employees come back from lunch repeatedly smelling of alcohol on their breath or marijuana. That’s when HR will have to step in.

Everyone likes to uphold the zero-tolerance rule; however, it is not as simple as that. HR must consider whether there are any medical reasons for why an employee might need to consume marijuana. The obligation is on the employer to find out what kind of an accommodation needs to be made at work before taking any action. Management cannot jump to the disciplinary stage without considering the reasons for marijuana consumption.

However, on a more complex level, there are some industries where employee safety is a key consideration. Employees in the transportation, public transit, construction and manufacturing industries have important safety regulations to comply. Employers in these industries will have to face bigger HR implications.

Unlike Foresters — a life insurance company selling investment products — group insurance carriers such as Sunlife will see significant changes in the wake of this legislation. At Foresters, medical marijuana is covered under our drug plan. But, like all forms of treatment, its usage must be appropriate treatment for the condition. There are restrictions.

Organizations need to be concerned about two different issues — as the HRPA has well elucidated — the government should set up two regulatory tracks (recreational and medical marijuana usage) for employers to better understand what accommodations need to be made.

More pressing is the issue that most employers expect employees not to smoke at work, but unlike cigarettes, smoking marijuana outside of work might have different performance implications. This is where it gets tricky. If workers detect that a co-worker smells of cannabis everyday, that doesn’t mean he is using it at the workplace. It could mean he is using it before he comes to work.

So, leaders need to be trained, in this case, to understand that the employee is not automatically impaired, and secondly, have a discussion with the employee — and not necessarily a disciplinary one.

The standards of inclusion and safety in workplace are changing all the time. In my blog about the #MeToo movement, I mention that professional standards and policies around sexual harassment in the workplace are different today than they used to be decades ago. The same is true for cannabis legalization. Leaders need to seek to understand first, before judging.

The government hasn’t yet clarified the standards for what constitutes impairment — standards exist for alcohol consumption. Employers will have to watch that space to determine what actions to take with an employee consuming marijuana.

We’ve seen lots of legislative changes take place over the years. A call to action for HR is that if you’re one of the majority that have no preparedness on this issue, a good starting point is to review HRPA’s whitepaper on “Clearing the Haze – The Impacts of Marijuana in the Workplace”. It’s a useful guide for employers and will enable HR teams to consider the steps they need to take over the next few months, as we see the legislation roll out.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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