Recruiting to Avoid a Rocky Mountain High — the Impact of State Marijuana Laws

Mar 31, 2014
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

marijuanaHow a state law becomes a recruiting issue 

I recently visited Boulder, Colorado, and guess what: everyone there was talking about the new marijuana law. If you are recruiting leader for a large corporation, you may fail to realize how much the laws of individual states can either positively or negatively impact your recruiting in that region. Take this Colorado marijuana law, for example. As a result of the law and its related publicity, firms trying to attract talent to the state may get a noticeable increase in applicants from younger workers who view the new law as a positive thing, making the state a great place to work (For example, the University of Colorado had a 33 percent spike in freshman enrollments this year. Some have attempted to attribute the rise at least in part due to the publicity around the law).

But a recruiting leader shouldn’t be surprised to find out that state laws can also have a negative impact on recruiting. Once more using the Colorado example, there is already some indication that employees with families are having second thoughts about relocating there because they are unsure about living in a state where their children could be continually exposed to widespread marijuana use. And before you make the assumption that the recruiting implications of this law are unique, realize that the same positive and negative impacts may come from other state laws relating to high profile issues. Those might include local laws covering gay rights/marriage, abortion, access to voting, tax rates, and school choice and even, as happened in Florida, gun laws.

Recruiting Challenges in a 420 World

Even if medical or recreational marijuana hasn’t come to your state yet, you might be surprised to learn the surprising number of recruiting implications that a single law can have. Let’s look at how the legalization could impact recruiting in Colorado to illustrate how complex an issue this could turn out to be.

  • Marijuana could serve as an attraction factor — the marijuana law could provide a recruiting draw for all Colorado firms; however, it could have a much bigger advantage at some particular types of firms. For example, if you are a startup, a social media/web firm, or do work in the design field, you may find that a liberal marijuana law is quite attractive to a target workforce that is both young and creative. If you recruit for a firm that produces a counterculture product or service, the law might also make it easier to attract innovators or counterculture types. States that only have medical marijuana laws could find that this option will attract individuals with the medical issues that are helped my marijuana. Even individuals who didn’t care one way or the other about marijuana may now view Colorado positively as a place that offers increased freedoms of many types.
  • Would you use marijuana as a recruiting selling point? — I would be surprised if more than a handful of firms were bold enough to overtly use the law as a recruiting draw. However, if you did, you can be assured that it would be noticed and that it would receive massive press coverage. Of course with any public exposure, you would have to be careful because any connection between the firm and the drug may negatively impact applicants with families and even your customers. If your Colorado facility was part of a larger multi-state operation, obviously any use as a recruiting draw would have to be approved by executives.
  • How do you proactively alleviate fears related to widespread marijuana usage? — Your first reaction as a recruiting leader might be to just ignore the law and its impact, but that could be a mistake because it could negatively impact some applicants. For example, you would have to decide if your firm would attempt to alleviate the concerns of potential applicants who would be worried about marijuana’s impact on their families. And if you decided to proactively act, would the message best be sent on social media, placed on your website, or mentioned during the hiring process?
  • You will get questions about marijuana use — if you’re recruiting  in Colorado, at the very least you must prepare for the fact that both prospects and candidates will almost assuredly have questions related to the marijuana law. As a recruiting leader you would have to decide whether to put a FAQ section covering those questions on your website and also if you would encourage or restrict your employees from talking about the issue in their blogs and social media postings. And it would also make sense to work with the legal department to provide hiring managers and recruiters with prewritten answers. HR would of course have to determine what aspects of marijuana use should be covered during onboarding.
  • Does your reference-checking process identify applicants with the potential to abuse it — your executives could be concerned that the law would result in a flood of applicants from those who have the potential to be heavy users. If that was a concern, it would make sense to include checking for actual or potential drug use during your reference checking. Obviously you could look for drug convictions, but you could also search social media in order to identify an excessive number of references to drug or alcohol usage. HR would also have to decide whether managers and supervisors should be trained in how to spot usage or impairment on the job.
  • Routine drug testing could harm your recruiting — Colorado is an “at will” state, and as a result, employers have the right to institute almost any rule that restricts or prohibits marijuana use (even off the job and with a medical prescription). But at the same time executives need to be aware that these marijuana-related rules could negatively impact recruiting and retention. Firms should consider the possibility that the passage of the law is an indication that most of the population is against a negative attitude toward drugs. And by requiring drug tests at either the time of hire or periodically on the job, corporations could be unintentionally sending the message to Colorado applicants that they are out of touch. If individual firms decide to continue with their drug tests, explain to applicants and employees exactly why they are necessary and whether they apply to marijuana use. Managers should also consider letting applicants and employees know that marijuana lingers in the bloodstream and can show up in drug tests weeks after its use. To an employee, this means that if they were drug tested related to their job (like after an accident), any usage in the last few weeks may result in a positive drug test and their immediate termination. So if off-the-job usage was frequent among employees, frequent drug testing would likely result in an extremely high involuntary turnover rate.
  • How will you handle the smell of marijuana? — because the smell of marijuana has been known to attach itself to clothing, recruiters and hiring managers might find themselves with candidates for interviews who carry that smell with them. An interesting issue arises as to whether you should warn or train manager/recruiters to ignore the smell or to recognize it and take it as a possible indication of heavy use (even though it’s legal to use, or the smell might come from just being close to others who were smoking).
  • Recruiting at federal agencies and government contractors is problematic — under federal law, marijuana is still technically illegal (even in Colorado). As a result, federal agencies and government contractors in the state operating under the “drug-free workplace” rule would be required to continue with their periodic drug tests. Because of that management should probably subtly make applicants aware (and directly let new hires know) that any use by employees on or off the job would be considered illegal under federal law.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to joke about a state medical or recreational marijuana law, or alternatively, to assume that the law is not relevant to recruiting. However if you live in a state that has or might soon have such a law, there are many recruiting implications. There could be an equal number of recruiting implications related to laws covering other prominent issues including gay marriage, divorce, child custody, etc. As a result, recruiting leaders should spend some time identifying the issues related to the impact of any high-profile state laws and then develop a plan to handle those identified opportunities and issues.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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