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The Controversy Around Hiring Smokers

If you’re a smoker, you’d better think twice about lighting up before your next job interview.  Although not a new debate, the controversy surrounding the choice of companies to refuse employment to smokers has been growing steadily over the past decade, and there’s a lot of gray area surrounding the issue.

There are a number of reasons for companies wanting to cut smokers out of their workforce.  Smoking is one of the top contributors to rising health insurance costs for employers, and with healthcare costs already off the charts, employers are looking at ways to improve their bottom line.

In fact, a judge who received testimony on the issue concluded that a typical smoker can cost his employer over $11,000 a year (in 2011 dollars), cited public interest law professor John Banzhaf, of George Washington University Law School.

According to a 2009 study by the Journal of Tobacco Policy & Research, smokers also have higher rates of absenteeism, which not only affects their productivity but that of the employees who have to pick up the slack.  We won’t even get into the list of appearance and odor issues that can be associated with heavy or careless smokers that can have a negative impact on co-workers and clients.

What used to be only a handful of companies a decade ago that banned smokers from being employed has now risen drastically enough that many state governments have started getting involved in the debate.  But, despite some state efforts to prevent discrimination against smokers, there are still laws that exempt non-profit groups and the healthcare industry from their adherence, and 21 out of the 50 U.S. states have no rules against nicotine-free hiring.

And, if you live in one of these 21 states, federal laws allow nicotine-free hiring because they don’t recognize smokers as a protected class, according to Chris Kuzynski with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Think you’re okay if you live in one of the other 29 states?  Think again.  Many of the smokers’ rights laws provide very limited protection for smokers. For example, employers who may be prohibited from making no smoking a condition of employment can incentivize their hiring practices towards non-smokers by providing smokers with fewer benefits and less pay.

Additionally, statutes have rarely been enforced in most states who do have protections in place for smokers because the majority of the laws are full of employer beneficial loopholes.

Many employers have also gotten creative in achieving their ‘smoke-free’ workforce by not only banning smoking in and around office buildings, but banning the smell of cigarette smoke on clothing and hair from entering the building.  So, if you’re thinking of taking a quick smoke break, you’d better hope you also have access to a shower and a fresh change of clothes during your 10-15 minute walk outside.

So, the questions still remains: Can you get asked point blank in an interview if you smoke?  Here’s more of the gray area, yes and no.  If you live in one of the 29 states who have laws protecting smokers, chances are no.  But, if you live in one of the 21 states that don’t have protection laws, it wouldn’t be altogether unlikely, although I would advise against it to any hiring manager to ask it as such.

Even though federal law doesn’t safeguard smokers as a protected class, asking a person if they smoke could be considered a leading question to infer if they have any health issues or related disabilities.

If you are an employer who enforces nicotine-free hiring practices, it’s probably better in the job interview to state that you are a nicotine-free company, that all employees must abide by this rule/contract/etc., and then ask the interviewee if they can meet the requirements of the position.

Some companies choose not to ask at all but force potential hires to submit to a urine test. (Which means no nicotine patches for anyone trying to quit!)

For the employers out there, how do you see the debate?  Are you not limiting your talent pool by refusing to hire a person who chooses to smoke?  Or, is it a matter of cultural fit, and a person who smokes wouldn’t be a good fit in the work environment and therefore unable to contribute to their full capacity, anyway?

Lewis Maltby, president of the Workrights Institute, who has lobbied vigorously against the practice of banning smokers from the workforce believes, “There is nothing unique about smoking.  The number of things that we all do privately that have negative impact on our health is endless. If it’s not smoking, it’s beer. If it’s not beer, it’s cheeseburgers…”

Ellen Vargyas chief counsel for the American Legacy Foundation doesn’t believe smokers are the enemy. “We want to be very supportive of smokers, and the best thing we can do is help them quit, not condition employment on whether they quit,” she states.

And, perhaps this is the approach many other companies are taking to get closer to their ‘smoke-free’ workforces: creating smoking cessation programs and a culture of wellness.  By promoting a health conscious work environment, employers foster a culture that encourages smokers who want to work there to quit with the encouragement and support of their teams.

So where does the debate end and where do you stand on the issue? For smokers out there, does this affect your desire to interview with a company (or continue working for a company) or does it encourage you to quit?

Do smokers have rights or do employers have the right to dictate a ‘smoke-free’ work environment?  And, if it is the employer’s right, to what end does it stop?

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