Smoking in the Workplace | Rights, Rules & Regulations

Dec 31, 2013

If you’re exploring ways to reduce your organization’s health care expenses, you may have considered expanding your drug and alcohol policy to include nicotine and tobacco. One organization did just that, but they expanded the policy further—to candidates.

A Florida health care organization, Orlando Health, expanded its drug and alcohol policy to all forms of tobacco use and enforced this policy with candidates as well. As part of the application process (which includes the regular drug test), candidates are screened for the nicotine bi-product, cotinine. If candidates are found to be regular tobacco users, offers will be rescinded with an opportunity to re-apply after 180 days.

You read that right. If you use tobacco, you are not a fit for the organization.

The organization is committed to a culture of good health and promotes the cessation of tobacco use. Christy Pearson, COO Human Resources, Orlando Health, stated, “Our goal… is not to exclude anyone who is qualified and interested in pursuing a career with Orlando Health. It is to promote and encourage the cessation of all tobacco use.”

Is this practice health conscious? Of course. But we need to ask the following: is this is a legal hiring practice? Is it discriminatory? Not at the federal level. There are no protections provided to smokers or tobacco users. Federal employment law only prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetics.

However, even though federal law does not consider a smoker as a protected class, some states have passed their own laws to cover smokers. Currently, there are 29 states that have classified “smokers” as a protected class and make it discriminatory to reject a candidate or fire an employee for smoking. Florida is not one of these states.

Orlando Health implemented a policy that does not violate Florida state or federal employment laws. But is this a best practice? Is it the way to go? Not only does this impact an employee’s professional life, the employer now has a say in what happens in their personal life as well. Is it an invasion of privacy?

I believe as health care costs increase, the burden will continue to weigh on the employer to reduce expenses and risks associated with employee health. There are programs in place to facilitate weight loss and exercise. Smoking and tobacco cessation programs, resources and tools are available at almost every organization. However, extending the policy to candidates and new hires is on the extreme side. Where will it end? Will organizations then have the right to limit what their employees eat? How does the “what’s good for the organization” mentality blend with respecting the privacy and free agency of employees? If we limit ourselves, I believe we potentially limit our creativity and ability to innovate as well.

Finding the right talent is hard enough. Placing additional restrictions on hiring makes your job harder and creates more red tape. Be an employer of choice by providing resources that promote good choices and behavior. Instead of placing limitations on your employees from day one, encourage them to join you in the health effort through an education and rewards program. Forcing people to do something never works in the long run. Encourage and empower your employees to lead the way through example. Team effort is much more compelling to prompt change than a closed door.

Let us know what you think. Has your organization implemented a program to curb or end tobacco and nicotine use? Have you expanded your policy to recruiting? Share your results with us.

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