Buzzkill: Tech companies grapple with workers smoking weed on the job

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Getting high while you work has never been easier. And it’s never been more difficult for employers to figure out what, if anything, to do about it.

Eighteen states have legalized marijuana and more than 5 million Americans have been prescribed marijuana for medical purposes. At the same time, some 50 million Americans have worked from the privacy of their own homes over the past two years, with their stash and their cravings close at hand.

In the tech industry – seen by many as very weed-friendly – ​​the question is particularly interesting. And in San Francisco, the smell of cannabis smoke is as much a part of the city as the fog. Celebrating the upcoming unofficial 4/20 weed party here is like celebrating Water Day in the underwater city of Atlantis.

What does all this add up to? According to a recent survey, a quarter of the workforce occasionally gets high while working. Twenty-six percent of employees at Bay Area-based technology companies answered yes to the question “Have you used cannabis for medical or non-medical purposes while working in the office or at home in the last three month ?

The anonymous survey of 2,514 verified professionals in the United States was conducted by social network Blind, which requires registration with a business email address, on April 12-13. The online survey was both self-reported and anonymous, but it also provides rare insight into a topic that tech workers might be reluctant to discuss openly.

And that’s consistent with other studies of remote workers. A survey of 1,000 workers released in November found that 21% admitted to using alcohol, marijuana or other recreational drugs during work hours while employed in 2021.

For some techs, consuming weed occasionally while on the job is comparable to drinking lots of coffee – and more natural than taking a stimulant like Adderall.

“It’s not something I do often. This job requires a lot of focus,” a software engineer in his 20s who lives in The City told The Examiner. “But sometimes there are days when you’re not quite yourself, and using cannabis can help change your focus when you’re stuck.” The engineer, who requested anonymity for himself and his employer, estimated that they get high and work about once every two months.

So what’s the deal with tech workers getting high on the job? If you’re sitting at home working on a laptop, you’re not going to kill someone because you’re stoned.

Some people even think they work better at heights, although recent research suggests otherwise.

A 2020 study from the state of San Diego found “decreased performance when using cannabis before or during work.” The study, which the researchers say was the first to assess the work behavior of high-level employees in 20 years, used an interesting methodology: it surveyed 281 employees and their direct supervisors. (Imagine participating in a study where your boss watches you work high. Talk about weed-induced paranoia.)

Importantly, the San Diego State study found no evidence that after-work marijuana use affected job performance in any way. (In fact, the researchers said it might help.) “People who decide to use cannabis after finishing work may be able to distract themselves from stressful work issues,” wrote lead researcher Dr. Jeremy Berneth. “They can then come back with more stamina to devote to their work.”

It’s understood? Getting high at night for the good of the company. But getting high on the job is hard on the company because so much is changing with the legality and use of marijuana that employers can’t keep up with.

Federal law prohibiting marijuana use has always been the fallback for companies, which often do business globally and need employee policy. (Legalizing weed by the state gives you the right to smoke. That doesn’t mean your employer has to accommodate it.)

But this federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, is criticized by the courts and Congress. The Supreme Court is currently considering reviewing workers’ compensation cases involving medical marijuana. If companies have to pay for it, how can it be illegal nationwide? And the House passed a marijuana legalization bill and sent it to the Senate.

It’s all in the air, experts say.

“We’re seeing a real sea change,” said attorney James Reidy of New England firm Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green, which has been advising companies on marijuana policy for years. “At the end of the day, we’re looking at what the consequences of legalization are.”

But companies can’t wait for everything to be settled. “If you close your eyes, you could be responsible,” Reidy said.

Really? In technology companies? Coal mines and trucking companies, of course. But technicians typing on the couch?

Here’s the nightmare scenario: A manager knows an employee is stoned during cybersecurity training, in fact, he jokes about it during the recorded Zoom call. A week later, a data breach costs the company millions. The insurance company investigating the breach reviews the Zoom call, and voila! : responsibility.

What would happen if cannabis use was implicated in a problem at a company working with the federal government, or in a company dealing with financial data, or in a social network under fire for finding misinformation, or in a robotics company that had an accident?

“These are all unanswered questions,” Brian Allen, vice president of government affairs at insurance technology firm Mitchell, told The Examiner. These scenarios may be unlikely, but insurers are paid to monitor them.

But if tech companies ban weed or test it, they will lose much-needed talent. “You have to be able to recruit,” Allen said. “If you fire everyone who has tested positive, there won’t be anyone left.”

Plus, Allen pointed out, “most people use it responsibly.” (Remember that getting high after work can be for the good of the company.)

So what should companies do?

“The best thing for any company is a clear policy, such as ‘You can’t be drunk on the job,’ Allen said. By anything. Don’t work while impaired. Many companies have a policy that prohibits the use of “illegal drugs.” This may not apply to marijuana.

Less than half (45%) of organizations have a written cannabis policy, according to the National Safety Council, a 100-year-old nonprofit safety advocacy group.

But even after defining the aspect of risk, it is still not easy for managers to enforce the rules. “If someone isn’t looking good or acting bad, you ask questions,” Allen said. “It’s an awkward conversation you have to have as a manager.”

To say the least. Imagine your manager calling you and saying, “Hey, your eyes were red on that Zoom call. Are you too stoned to work?

“The manager is in a difficult position,” said Reidy, the New England attorney who advises the companies.

It might make managers feel like a vice-principal after lunch at a California high school.

But experts say it’s important to realize that when it comes to work, weed is now where booze was a generation ago.

“People used to get bombed at lunch, and it was tolerated,” said Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton, the famed business school at the University of Pennsylvania. But bad things have happened and companies have realized their responsibility to report drunkenness.

“Marijuana is no different than alcohol or anything else that distracts from work,” Cappelli said.

Ultimately, employees make the decision to use cannabis while they work, and most simply seem to find it inconvenient, according to numerous comments on the Blind social network which conducted the survey.

“I don’t know who these guys/girls who smoke weed and code are,” one Facebook employee wrote. “I can’t do math/logic when I’m stoned. The best I can do is watch “Teletubbies”.

A cloud of smoke rises from the crowd at 4:20 p.m. at the 420 event at Hippie Hill in 2019. The unofficial celebratory marijuana event will return this year. (Ellie Dean/Special for the SF Examiner)

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