No smoke without fired

A US firm has sacked four employees who refused to take an ‘are you a smoker’ test. From 1 January, Weyco’s policy was that it would no longer employ smokers, even if those smokers only indulged in their spare time. As the firm explains:

While trying to be sensitive to smokers’ personal predicament, we’re also saying, “You can choose to smoke after Jan. 1, but if so, you’ll need to find other employment.”

The firm goes on to provide the usual justifications – smokers eat babies, worship Satan, that sort of thing – but of course, this is ultimately about money. US firms provide healthcare for their employees, and the cost of such healthcare is higher for employees who smoke.

we also get asked: “What will companies ban next – unhealthy eating, drinking, and sexual behavior?”

The answer is, of course, no. But not, it seems, because the firm doesn’t want to fire people for those reasons:

federal law protects people with conditions such as obesity, alcoholism and AIDS.

Is it just me, or does the tone of that statement sound rather disappointed?

We’ll see more such cases, because the healthcare issue – increased costs for anyone who doesn’t live a pure and rather dull life – positively encourages firms to discriminate against certain groups of people such as smokers or drinkers, even if those activities have no bearing whatsoever on their ability to work, their productivity or their attendance.

But firms don’t need the excuse of increased healthcare costs to enforce the boss’s standards on their employees’ personal lives; they’re keen to do it anyway. People have been fired because of their sexuality, because they failed a drug test – does it really matter if an accountant smoked a few joints at the weekend? Fair enough if he runs out of a board meeting screaming “Spiders! Spiders! Aaaaagh!”, but that’s pretty unlikely. Although it would be funny – or because the firm wanted to portray a younger image and got rid of everyone over 40.

The counter-argument goes something like this: the employer should be free to hire or reject whoever they want; after all, they’ve built the business up from scratch and it’s nobody’s business but their own who they hire. And while I’ve some sympathy with that argument, the problem is a wider one. If one firm won’t hire smokers, people who smoke could work elsewhere; if most firms won’t hire smokers – something of a trend in the US – then people are being excluded from the labour market for indulging in a legal activity, in their spare time. The increased healthcare costs argument doesn’t cut it, because employers could pass on the extra costs to the smokers; if the smokers aren’t willing to bin the cigs, then they should pay the extra premiums. But it seems that firms would rather dictate their employees’ lifestyles than treat people fairly.

The other counter-argument is that statistically, smokers are more likely to die young, or to develop nasty illnesses in later life. But if that’s a valid reason to sack people, what’s to stop firms discriminating against people with duff genes? Women whose mothers contracted breast cancer are statistically more likely to contract breast cancer themselves; should employers be allowed to discriminate against those women because statistically, they’re more likely to die young or need extensive time off work for chemotherapy and radiotherapy? What about people with a genetic predisposition to develop congenital heart failure, to develop mental illness, or to develop degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons or MS? After all, why should a firm invest time and money in recruitment, training and staff development if the employee is likely to repay that investment by getting sick or going mad?

If the employees don’t smoke at work and they don’t slack off at work then it’s none of their employer’s damn business. If they’re persistently absent or don’t pull their weight, then those are valid reasons to discipline them; to refuse to hire smokers in the first place because they might be absent or might not pull their weight is prejudice. Employers’ control over their employees’ lives should stop at the end of the shift.

There’s an interesting – and very heated – conversation about this on MetaFilter.