Does a Background Check Include a Drug Test?

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Background checks can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of a job application. After all, nothing can be more disappointing than acing the interview stage only to learn you were passed over because of something uncovered during the background check phase. So when you add drug tests into the equation, the anxiety quotient flies through the roof.

But is that standard? Does a background check include a drug test? This article reveals the answer and more about drug tests and job applications.

Short Answer

Generally, employers don’t go as far as to request prospective employees to take drug tests when running background checks on them. However, companies and organizations operating in industries like defense, government, and education incorporate drug tests in their hiring process and factor the result into their final decision.

Why Some Employers Conduct Drug Tests During Background Checks

Many employers have learned the risks of employing drug users the hard way and are less inclined to hire such employees when looking to fill positions. Common problems companies have experienced after hiring drug users include absenteeism, low productivity, and fatal work-related accidents, all stemming from the employee’s drug problems.

Moreover, companies that have hired drug-using employees previously know the impact such employees can have on their bottom line. For example, they may have experienced problems like theft, lawsuits, and lost contracts due to employee negligence.

Finally, some employers use drug tests to avoid reputational damage from a bad hire. These companies utilize the tests to weed out employees who aren’t a good fit for the image they’ve cultivated and their organization’s values.

Industries Where Employers Are More Likely to Require a Drug Test

As already mentioned, many employers won’t require that you take a drug test as part of a background check. The exception is when you apply for work in specific industries where the job requires laser focus, attention to detail, care and skill, cognitive reasoning, etc. Some of these industries include:

Government: The US government usually has strict criteria when hiring candidates, one of which is being drug-free. For example, if you fail a drug test for a job that requires security clearance, you can forget about landing the job.

Manufacturing: Jobs in manufacturing require concentration, especially when they involve heavy use of machinery. Depending on your role, you’ll need a clear head to debug problems with robots or operate machinery. Moreover, human error can lead to fatalities when working with machines, so drug use is strictly prohibited.

Security: Would you hire a security guard if you knew they’d be high half the time they were supposed to protect lives and property? How safe would you feel if the said person needed to carry a firearm for their job? Increasingly, the security industry has been strict about drug tests, and it’s not hard to see why.

Transportation: Obviously, US motorways would be extremely dangerous if truckers could do drugs recreationally while hauling from state to state. And logistics companies wouldn’t get any business if their employees kept loading goods on the wrong trucks due to drug-induced misinterpretations of customer order data.

Construction: As is the case in manufacturing, the construction industry may require employees to work with dangerous tools. Moreover, construction is sensitive work, and a drug-addled employee’s shoddy job (if they can function at all) will put lives at risk when working under the influence of drugs.

Health Care: No one would put their lives in the hands of a nurse, doctor, or surgeon who pops pills casually. Also, employers in the healthcare industry are acutely aware that hiring a drug user would be like handing them the keys to the pharmacy cabinet.

Education: Employers in the education industry wouldn’t let a drug user near children, and rightly so. The same applies even if the candidate is teaching students who are old enough to be curious about drugs.

How Drug Tests Are Conducted

Employers have several kinds of drug tests available to them during the hiring process. They include:

  • Urine Tests: Urine tests are one of the most commonly used methods for testing. Usually, these tests detect substances in the bloodstream between five and ten days. The sample passes through an initial screen then a confirmation screen if drugs are detected in the initial one.
  • Hair Test: Alternatively, the employer may opt for a hair test. These tests involve collecting strands of the employee’s hair cut near the scalp. Unlike urine samples, hair tests can detect drugs that have been in the system for up to three months.
  • Saliva Sample: Another commonly used testing method for detecting drugs is collecting employees’ saliva samples. Some employers prefer this testing method because the employee is within view and cannot try any funny business with the sample.
  • Breath Test: Employers may use breath tests to check whether their employees are inebriated. These tests involve making the employee breathe into a breathalyzer machine to detect the levels of alcohol in their system.
  • Blood Test: During a blood test, a phlebotomist draws blood from the employee before testing it in a lab. These tests aren’t as popular with employers because they’re highly invasive and expensive. However, they’re the most accurate tests available.

Most of the different drug testing methods aim to reveal whether an employee has drugs in their system. Some tests can detect several types of illicit substances in the body, including cocaine, opiates, and amphetamines.

When Drug Tests Happen

When do drug tests happen? Before, during, or after the background check? The answer to that question depends on the individual employer’s internal policy.

Generally, employers make prospective employees take a drug test after they’ve concluded the background check. However, in some instances, the employer conducts the drug test while the background check is in progress.

Moreover, employers commonly conduct background checks and drug tests before giving employees a conditional employment offer, though some states outlaw this practice.

Finally, some employers may make an employee take a drug test after they’ve concluded the background check but close to the prospective employee’s first day on the job. The reason for this practice is to ensure a more accurate drug test.

Some employers routinely make their employees take drug tests (e.g., quarterly or monthly), while others may conduct reasonable suspicion drug tests only when workplace accidents occur.

Drug Tests and State Laws

Laws regulating drug tests vary from state to state. For example, employers in North Carolina can test prospective employees however they see fit, as long as an approved laboratory conducts the test.

Meanwhile, Ohio laws dictate that employers must give notice before initiating a test and only after extending an offer of employment. Also, Ohio employers are restricted in the way they test employees. For example, they can only test if they have reasonable suspicion of drug use after an accident or if the employees are fresh hires.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will I Be Tested for Marijuana? 

Marijuana still isn’t legal in all fifty US states, with only a handful legalizing it for recreational or medical purposes (as of writing). Therefore, employers can test you for marijuana use and refuse to employ you based on a failed drug test. Moreover, you can be tested regardless of whether you’ll work in a state that has legalized marijuana use.

Will Past Drug Test Results Show Up in a Background Check? 

They will, and your prospective employer may require you to take a new drug test, regardless of the results of the past ones. Moreover, since a failed drug test stays on your record for some years, it’s safer to come clean to your employer about the failed tests.

Am I Expected to Pay for the Drug Test?

No. If the company tries to force you to cover the costs of the drug test, that’s a red flag. The majority of companies pay for drug tests.

Can I Still Be Hired if I Fail a Drug Test?

It depends on the hiring company’s policy. A handful of companies may still hire you even if your test comes back positive, although you might be put on probation and re-tested in the future.


Drug tests aren’t standard practice during background checks, but that doesn’t stop some employers from requiring them. And if you intend to work in an industry that requires candidates to be in top form, you won’t be able to avoid taking a test.

Fortunately, some employers may proceed with your application even if you fail a drug test. And if you’re clean the next time you’re tested during your employment probation, you shouldn’t have any issues securing the job.