Timberland CEO Bans Smoking: "Call me names, but don't call

by Aman Singh Das | June 03, 2010

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Workplace issues, safety and culture are a huge component of corporate responsibility. Every firm would like its employees to act responsibly, ethically and to remain healthy. And many companies have HR policies in place that reinforce positive behaviors: from reimbursing workers for gym memberships based on attendance rates to providing free health screenings and paid time off for annual checkups. But what happens when companies go from reinforcing positive behaviors to restricting an employee's freedom of choice?

Starting this week, there will be no more smoking on Timberland estate. Timberland's CEO Jeff Swartz announced the policy change through Earthkeepers, his company's blog. Here's an excerpt from his post:

"At our company, turns out that health costs spiral most viciously for two populations—the employee who lives a self-indulgent unhealthy lifestyle (the overweight, outta shape exec) and the employees (cigarette smokers) who buy into the load of crap that Phillip Morris sells (like the idea that smelling like an ash tray is sexy).

Hey, this is New Hampshire on the line, so live free or die—but this is also Timberland, Stratham NH 03855, make your own choice about smoking, but not at work. We're not paying for poor choices any more in the form of inflated health costs. Doesn't take a politician to figure this one out; don't need tea parties or white wine spritzer parties- No more smoking at Timberland."

Clearly, there are many ways to look at this. Here are just four that come to mind:

1) Is he crossing the line between professional and personal responsibility? In advocating the best interests of his business is he treading on "personal freedom"?

2) What about those who cheat the system? How does this fit in with the company's ethical HR policy? And while he doesn't come out and tell people to choose between smoking or working at Timberland, his words leave employees in no doubt: Swartz is prepared to damage brand loyalty in pursuit of his own concept of good citizenship. In his own words: "… I am not pursuing overnight polling–as a CEO committed to the notion of responsibility — for my business, for employees, for the environment — I'll take my lumps on this one. Talk is cheap and action is hard – and I'm perfectly comfortable and unapologetic about choosing hard in this case. Call me names, but don't call me inert."

3) Swartz has led Timberland for over 30 years, through decades when corporate responsibility was neither fashionable nor respected. He has made many tough decisions and stayed profitable while remaining integrated with the triple bottom line principle. Viewed in that light, isn't this announcement just another strain of the same commitment to his employees, customers and the environment? Sustainability advocates would claim this as just another action from a company that embeds CSR in every corporate decision. Apart from Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender, how many leaders can you count who use CSR as a guiding principle in all their business decisions?

4) Should Swartz now be offering incentives to employees to help them to quit smoking? And if so, what about his non-smoking employees? Do they deserve some kind of recognition?

A case of taking corporate responsibility too far or a brave decision to walk the talk at the possible risk of damaging brand loyalty? You be the judge. Leave a comment, email In Good Company or connect with us on Twitter @VaultCSR.

Filed Under: CSR

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