MHA says no to hiring tobacco users – a precedent to expand lifestyle hiring bans?
In early November the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) announced that it would not hire tobacco users beginning in January of 2011. This announcement has gotten a lot of attention locally and has created a fire storm of controversy, with equal measures of supporters and detractors. Although this practice isn’t commonplace it isn’t entirely new either. A number of employers have adopted so-called ‘lifestyle bans’ over the last few years. Most have cited concern over rising health care costs, a commitment to health and wellness initiatives, or both. In response, over half of our states have adopted laws against the practice of employers making hiring decisions based on the applicant’s off duty activities. Currently, Massachusetts doesn’t have any specific bans against employers implementing lifestyle statutes as part of its hiring practice.
Supporters are primarily focused on the need to take action against what is often referred to as the number one, most preventable cause of death in the country. Years of restrictions on smokers as well as the increased cost of smoking has not been able to eliminate it from our society. Many employers feel it’s their duty to push efforts to the next level in order to impact the health of their workers. This motivation is shared by the CEO of the MHA in her decision to establish the hiring ban, who cites a personal mission to eradicate smoking after losing her father to lung cancer. In another example, Memorial Hospital in Tennessee placed a ban on hiring tobacco users that wasn’t just about their employees, but as a “responsibility over the community they serve daily”. Rising healthcare costs are a major portion of any employer’s budget, in many cases only second to the cost of payroll. The act of smoking is also said to promote absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace which can result in significant intangible costs to the employer. Doesn’t an employer have the right to implement policies that help maintain its financial viability?
Detractors are concerned both with the employer’s invasion of worker’s private lives and its ability to make hiring decisions based on something that seems to have nothing to do with the applicant’s credentials or ability to perform, or even excel, at the job. One of the biggest concerns shared by those opposed to a tobacco hiring ban is that it sets a precedent to begin expanding lifestyle hiring bans into other seemingly private areas. Granted there are laws that preclude hiring decisions based on disabling conditions as covered in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For example, the ADA bars an employer from making hiring decisions based on whether an applicant is obese since the law covers morbid obesity. But what about other seemingly perilous lifestyle choices such as alcohol consumption, practicing unsafe sex, wearing a seat belt while riding in an automobile, healthy eating habits, etc.? These may sound far-fetched, but for those of us who can remember the day when smoking in the workplace, even at your desk, was commonplace, we would never have been able to predict the intense social backlash that exists against smoking today. It is sobering to consider where the line should be drawn or whether it should be drawn at all and by whom.