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Teaching Managers How to Navigate Cannabis in the Workplace

This op-ed was originally posted by The Globe and Mail on May 9, 2019.

Monica Haberl is a senior research associate with The Conference Board of Canada; Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada.

The Conference Board of Canada and The Globe and Mail are partnering to explore the relationship between career success and cannabis use. Employers and employees (both recreational and medical cannabis users, as well as non-cannabis users) are invited to participate in this study. (Employees interested in taking the survey can click on this link.; Employers interested in taking the survey can click on this link.) The data from these surveys will be aggregated and used to conduct analysis and create a report that will be presented Oct. 15, 2019 at a conference at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.

It’s been less than a year since recreational cannabis was legalized in Canada, and it’s too early to know whether managers are seeing more employees coming to work impaired. Coupled with this uncertainty, more employees may be requesting medical accommodations as the stigma around cannabis is reduced and the medical community learns more about such treatments.


Given how important the relationship between managers and those who report to them is, managers need to understand their rights and obligations, as well as those of their employees, when it comes to cannabis use.

Recreational cannabis is a drug that, when used before or during work, could compromise employees’ safety and performance. Managers need to understand this. The unique challenge with cannabis is that it is the only drug that can legally be used both recreationally and medically. It is therefore important for managers to be aware of the impact of recreational use and be knowledgeable about what roles in their workplace may be eligible for medical accommodations.


Employers are accountable for ensuring that organizational policies and guidelines around medical and recreational cannabis are easily accessible, well understood and frequently communicated to employees.

Beyond this, employers are encouraged to help employees feel comfortable asking questions about these policies without fear of stigma or repercussion. In many cases, the first point of contact for these conversations is the employee’s manager. The quality of the manager-employee relationship can play an important role in the level of trust employees have to ask questions as well as raise concerns about peers who may be impaired in the workplace.

It’s essential for employers to be clear about how they want managers to be able to manage cannabis in the workplace. This includes details such as:

  • Understanding the organization’s substance use policy and how to support employees who come forward with a substance-use issue;
  • Reinforcing workplace policies on cannabis use;
  • Being able to recognize cannabis impairment and know how to best intervene;
  • Understanding the employer’s duty to accommodate medical cannabis use and the manager’s role in the accommodation process;
  • Knowing what resources and accommodations are available to employees who may be struggling with problematic cannabis use or a cannabis substance disorder.

Employers must be clear on their expectations for employees. It’s the employer’s duty to ensure all employees understand the organization’s policies about cannabis—whether the focus is on smoking, addiction or accommodating medical use. Ideally, all employees should be personally accountable for following these policies.


Once the employer is clear on what they want managers to know, the next step is to develop and implement an action plan. They can start by ensuring managers are trained in the organization’s substance abuse policy.

Formally training managers to ensure staff are fit for duty will mean dealing with the legal aspects of workplace cannabis use, which include accommodating medical use and addiction, enforcing policies and addressing any potential human rights or privacy risks.

Managers need to be trained on how to have difficult conversations around cannabis use in the workplace. This may mean discussing workplace norms such as expectations around cannabis use at work-sanctioned social events. It might also involve a conversation around establishing a designated location where a medical user can consume cannabis at work. Managers should be comfortable broaching a conversation when they suspect an employee is impaired, or about problematic substance use and addiction.

Training can help managers develop and maintain good employee-manager relationships. To keep the workplace safe, it’s important for managers to be confident in their ability to discuss potentially contentious issues.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to training leaders on this or any subject. What’s appropriate for a large, safety-sensitive organization may not be appropriate for a small business with mostly office jobs. However, it’s helpful for employers to consider training and educational materials for managers and employees that go above and beyond just understanding policies and how to properly implement them.

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