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by Cathy Vandewater | February 22, 2011


Looking for a reason to quit smoking?

Here's one: it may be hurting your hire-ability.

"More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants," writes the New York Times. The policies go a step beyond previous "smoke free" workplace laws to keeping smokers themselves out of the office.

Reactions are mixed; employers champion the lower healthcare costs and increased productivity (re: fewer smoke breaks and sick days), and non-smoking workers may appreciate a desk mate that doesn't return from lunch smelling of ash trays.

But smokers are crying foul. In a poll conducted by Vault, 63% of respondents did not support the use of smoking as a determining factor in hiring or firing. A further 8% selected an option indicating they weren't sure either way, but did believe that nicotine patches or gum (rendered non-compliant in workplaces that conduct nicotine testing) should be allowed.

Long gone are the Mad Men days of puffing away at your desk--and with everything we know about second hand smoke, that's probably a good thing. But should offsite indulgence be punished too? What about other unhealthy habits, like cheeseburger and fries lunches or weekend drinking binges? Those have not been subject to scrutiny, despite their comparably adverse affects.

If employers are allowed to weed out otherwise qualified candidates based on a single trait, it seems logical to ask what might come next: Technically, smokers are not considered a protected group, since a penchant for tobacco doesn't fall under the category of sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, or religion. But neither does obesity—a trait that the head of the Cleveland Clinic has already suggested he'd turn away applicants for, if it were up to him.

A plus side is that for those trying to quit, a smokeless work environment may be a Godsend; there's nothing quite like the threat of losing your job to kill a craving. And specifically in health care environments, smoke-sensitive patients may breathe a sigh of relief at the clean air environment.

But the stressed out doctor? He's out of luck.

If "what's best for the company" (and what the company views, through that lens, to be best for you) is reason enough to pass these kinds of policies, there may be more invasions of our private lives to come. And again the question arises: what's next? If smoking-related illness is reason enough, how about those related to other lifestyle choices? Could we see workplace cholesterol tests to eliminate junk food consumption? Employees being fired for practicing unsafe sex?

There's an unsettling Big Brother vibe that comes with corporate policing of your personal habits, too. It's bad enough to have to fret over whether your jacket smells faintly of smoke after lunch, but what about evening or weekend smoking? If you work for a company that does nicotine testing, your boss will know you bummed a Camel at a party. And it may give him the power to fire you for it.

Yes, cigarettes are bad for you. And of course, blowing off steam at the gym is a better choice than a smoke break for dealing with a bad day. But at the end of the day, who should that choice belong to?

--Cathy Vandewater,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues