(This is based on a true story and all names and cities have been changed.)

On Monday morning, George, the Vice President of Operations in a large engineering company in Toronto, was considering if he could legally fire the project manager standing in front of him. The project manager and project team had just returned from an American job site early, without having accomplished any of their objectives. George had sent the team of five down to their automotive client in New Jersey on Friday night to perform a one-week software and electrical installation. The team, headed by Rick the project manager, had a short window of time during the planned shutdown period in which to accomplish the final phase of a complex project. The preparations were to happen on Saturday and the installation was to begin on Sunday.

Instead, here the team was, on Monday morning, back in Toronto standing in the VP’s office, complaining about their rights. They were unmindful of the financial impact of their actions to the organization and the major inconvenience to the client. They had essentially abandoned the project, because they had refused to undergo drug testing.

So why was this such a big deal? The US customer had been a client for the past five years. Three years ago, the automotive company began phasing in mandatory drug testing with their employees and all outside contractors. In the past, this condition had been waived for Canadian contractors due to the good pre-existing relationship that had been established. In the States, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that they have done everything possible to provide a safe workplace. If an employee shows up to work intoxicated or under the influence of drugs and an accident were to occur, the US court system would deem the company liable.

In Canada, employees have the right to refuse requests for drug testing. The laws on both sides of the border are ambiguous to the confidentiality of the information gathered from drug testing. In a Canadian company the Pass or Fail result is given to an executive of the company without any other detail. Employees receive the same status and if they failed, the reason why. A third party performs the testing and this has led to a concern that such companies are not currently restricted from gathering the information, generating statistics and selling it. Although the drug testing companies provide a list of what they are screening for, there are no guarantees that they are not testing for other things, such as AIDS and other diseases, or pregnancy. For those people with health conditions, their information may be sold to such organizations as pharmaceutical companies, who can then target these people.

This time when the team went down to the States, the Canadian government was making headline news around the world with their leniency towards marijuana. The client was also becoming stricter with its testing process, and had informed the team that mandatory testing was required before they would be allowed to go onto the site. The team members approached the PM saying that they were against taking the test. They had done research on the internet about drug testing policies and found out about the ambiguity of the use of the data gathered and the suggested ineffectiveness of mandatory testing. Substance abusers could easily thwart the testing process through access to clean urine, which could even be purchased on EBay. Clean employees were subjected to the embarrassment of taking the test. There was also the chance of error in the large volumes of samples being tested, which could blacklist a person unfairly.

The project manager had no company policy to fall back on and had not received any coaching or training to deal with an issue such as this. He sympathized with the other team members, having experimented with marijuana back in university he was not keen on being subjected to the testing either. So without even setting foot onto the job site, the team came home and were now standing in front of George, wondering how they were supposed to proceed.

In the end, of the team of five, two agreed to the testing but took the option of taking the test through their Canadian doctor. Another employee was found who was willing to take the test and join the team. The scaled down project team was able to complete the work, although it required longer hours and additional effort on their part.

What did George learn from this experience and how did he make positive changes in his organization to prevent this issue from happening again? He got together with the Director of Human Resources and they implemented a new company policy regarding mandatory testing that was put into the Employee Policy Manual. Furthermore, Project Managers would also receive training about mandatory testing.

The key learning from this company’s experience is that organizations should not wait for an event like this to occur. They should become fully aware of the policies of their clients; especially those may impact their business interactions. Most importantly, they should establish their own policies in response to these issues to provide direction to their employees or project teams. As companies pursue new markets in their search for increasing profits, selling to foreign countries becomes an obvious way to expand market share. The lure of selling products and services in other countries comes with its own unique set of challenges and risks, which are not always so obvious. Organizations need to be aware of the subtle and noticeable cultural differences when dealing with other countries. The subtle differences can have a large impact on an organization even between countries with similar cultures and value systems.

Janet Williams

Janet Williams, associate of Business Improvement Architects, is an experienced Business Consultant, Project Manager and Instructor. Janet specializes in Project Management and Business Process Improvement and has worked for the Public and Private Sector, including non-profit organizations. In her consulting and project management work Janet's focus has been to help organizations navigate and manage change as they implement their strategic objectives. She assists organizations with strategic assessments, analyzing problems and providing recommendations for corrective actions. Based on the needs of the organization, Janet provides project leadership and project team support. Throughout the project life cycle Janet builds and manages effective project teams, creates solid project plans and ensures communication reaches all levels of the organization.