Analysis and Recommendations Regarding the Hire of Smoking Employees
Our Board of Directors is considering adopting a policy of not hiring employees who smoke, as a way to contain health care costs. As requested, I have studied this issue and the many complex questions that it involves. After a presentation of those questions, I will propose a recommended course of action.
The first question is legality. Are we legally able to not hire smokers? The answer is both yes and no. There is no federal law that prohibits us from not hiring smokers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not recognize smokers as a protected class, so it is legal – at the federal level – to discriminate against smokers.
This creates two double standards within our organization. The first is that some offices will hire non-smokers and some will not. What happens if the hiring decision is made in a state that prohibits discrimination, but the actual work place site is in a location that allows it? What happens if a smoking person is hired and works in a state where discrimination is allowed, but later wants to be transferred or promoted to a state where hiring smokers is prohibited by company policy? Are they considered ‘new hires’ under the company policy, and thus ineligible to be transferred or promoted to that state? This could be a Pandora’s Box of lawsuits.
The second double standard is how we would treat new hires compared to current workers. If we adopt a policy of only hiring non-smokers, we would require a test for nicotine, just like we currently require a test for illegal drug use, before the hire. But what about after the hire? Do we require a test every six months, or randomly, or not at all? If we don’t require periodic testing, than a smoker just has to lie to us once, refrain from smoking in a period before the test and then go right on smoking. If we periodically test those hired after the policy goes into effect, then do we also start to test existing employees? Surely we have hired smokers in the past. If we periodically test employees hired after a certain date, but not before, we have created a two tier caste system.
Another area of concern is public relations. We are a business to consumer operating model so how our consumers think about us is extremely important. Announcing a policy of not hiring smokers is obviously discriminatory. In today’s age of social media, negative feedback about any discriminatory policy would most likely go viral, creating a widespread perception that we are nothing more than another heartless major corporation more concerned about profits than people. Lower socioeconomic segments have a higher smoking rate than non-smokers, so a policy that discriminates against lower income groups would certainly be received negatively. Socially conscious consumers might cancel existing accounts or refuse to open new ones with a ‘greedy capitalistic company”.
Ethically, we can adopt a policy of not hiring smokers, provided we follow the letter of the law on a state by state basis. I believe, however, that our social responsibility and our core value of doing the right thing suggests we take another approach.
The intent of a policy of not hiring smokers is not to discriminate against smokers because we don’t like smokers. The intent is on reducing health care costs, so let’s focus on another way we can reduce health care costs by decreasing the number of all of our employees who smoke.
Smoking is proven to be addictive and many studies have shown that smokers are aware of the dangers of smoking, but lack the will power and motivation to quit. I’d suggest we adopt a smoking cessation program, open to all employees. The program will be built around 2 approaches.
The first approach would be a support program, similar to an Alcoholics Anonymous program. Local support groups would be established on campus where those in the group receive counseling, education and motivation to quit, through regular meetings with their peers.
The second approach would be a reduction in the health care premiums employees pay now after they have completed an initial program and as long as they continue to pass voluntary nicotine testing on a periodic basis. If they choose not to take the test, or take it and fail, their health care premium reverts back to what it was before they received the reduction. I believe we could get our health care insurer to contribute all or most of the employee premium reductions. Converting hundreds of smokers to non-smokers will provide substantial long term reductions in their costs to health care providers. Because they are now paying out less, we can negotiate lower premiums which reduce our total costs – the real intent of what the Board wants to do.
This approach has many benefits. First, because it’s a voluntary program, we remove all of the complex legal issues. Second, because it is open to existing employees as well as new hires, we build unity within our workforce and avoid a two tier caste system. Third, use of local support groups can develop friendships and bonds between our employees, increasing both productivity and retention. Forth, we create a tsunami of good will on social media and in the public perception. We become the big corporation with a heart. We put the health of our employees first by helping them lead a healthier lifestyle. This is an overall benefit to society as a whole. Fifth, we reduce our corporate health care costs.
After a careful review of all the issues, I strongly recommend the Board adopt a Smoking Cessation program as the best way to reduce corporate health care costs.
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