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Smokers Need Not Apply – Draconian Companies Control Off-Site Behavior

I know it seems like we’ve been spending an awful lot of time lately discussing ridiculous smoking legislation and regulation, but it’s not my fault! It’s everybody else’s fault for making such silly rules all the time.  Today I want to touch on the trend of companies thinking they can tell their employees that they aren’t allowed to smoke, even on their own time outside the workplace. This seems particularly outrageous to me, since in my workplace smoking cigars is everything but required of the staff. Regardless of where anyone works

Glad this guy isn't my boss

however, I’m of the opinion that if someone wants to partake in any legal activity outside of the workplace, that it is none of their boss’s business. I don’t understand why this is a tough concept for anyone else; when you’re paying someone you get to tell them what to do. Once you stop paying them, you stop getting to order them around. Seems pretty simple to me. However there are some companies out there that feel otherwise, and in some cases are actually successfully firing smokers with no repercussions!

This fascist philosophy is typically disguised as a way for companies to decrease their healthcare costs. The idea being that smokers have a higher risk of disease, and therefore cause health insurance plans to have increased rates. There may be a kernel of truth there, but there are certainly plenty of other perfectly legal and just as unhealthy behaviors that never get regulated. If they’re worried about smokers raising their insurance premiums, they’d better start worrying about overweight folks, social drinkers, diabetics, etc. So why do companies like Weyco, Inc of Okemos, MI target smokers? I can’t think of a good reason, my only assumption is that they just like controlling people and trying to force them to be “healthy”. I can’t even really see the financial benefits, they’ll pay for employees to go as far as hypnosis to help them quit smoking, and they employ a full time consultant to advise the staff on their diet. They sure are serious though, when they first implemented the program back in 2004, they began issuing breath-tests to see if employees had smoked (how does that even work?), and even fired 4 staff members who refused to take the test under the mistaken impression that they were in America rather than the USSR circa 1980.

Smokers can’t even get a break from the ACLU, the organization that has fought every perceived workplace injustice imaginable. In Michigan against Weyco the ACLU turned tail and ran claiming there was no case because Michigan has no law on the books preventing employers from controlling employee’s behavior outside the workplace. Do you think they would have taken up the case if Weyco had fired all the gay employees for driving up healthcare costs due to an increased risk of AIDS? I do. And rightfully so, as that is a completely outrageous reason to fire someone. But so is firing someone for making a personal choice in the land of freedom to use a perfectly legal tobacco product. So where is the ACLU sticking up for these wronged workers?

The thing I really don’t understand is if increased healthcare costs are really the issue, why not just refuse to give the smokers insurance? Seems like it’d be pretty easy to me, kick back into the smoker’s paycheck whatever a non-smoker’s health plan costs, and let the smokers fend for themselves when it comes to healthcare. Maybe it’s not that simple, I’m just a marketing guy after all, but completely firing someone seems totally excessive and unnecessary, hurting both the smoker as well as the company who is losing a talented worker. If I did run my own company and had a choice between two employees, I’d take the smarter, hard-working one who cost the health plan a few extra pennies every time over the less-skilled one who was going to save me $4/month.

Fortunately all the news isn’t quite as bad as it is in Michigan; there are currently many states that do have laws on the books preventing employers from turning into Big Brother and trying to control off-the-clock behavior. In the state of Connecticut there is actually a law specifically prohibiting companies from requiring employees or prospective employees to be tobacco-free outside the workplace. In Massachusetts, the Scott’s Company fired a new hire for testing positive for nicotine on a urine test. The ex-employee in turn sued for invasion of privacy and wrongful termination. He lost he suit, but part of the court’s ruling did allude to the fact that they might have ruled in his favor had he actually tried to keep his smoking habit private, making the urine test a more clear invasion of his privacy. I think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a pretty lousy outside of work behavior policy, but it sure beats the hell out of the “do whatever we say” policy.

In conclusion, I think companies are on a very slippery slope trying to control behavior outside the workplace in the interest of “health”. For example, what if an employee is trying to quit and tests positive for nicotine because of gum, a patch, or electronic nicotine device? Theoretically, that employee could get fired for trying to get healthier and comply with policy! The bottom line is that singling out one legal, unhealthy behavior while leaving many others alone is blatantly unfair. Hopefully it is only a matter of time before some company goes after a less stigmatized unhealthy behavior than smoking and the public at large takes a stand against these draconian actions from employers.

Special thanks today to the puff.com forums and users maxwell62 & Slowpokebill for getting me all fired up about this topic and posting a bunch of the very interesting links found in this post!