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Is it Fair to Keep Smokers Out of the Workplace?



The vast majority of employers do not take an ethical position on the question of smoking.  Instead, their concerns revolve around lowering health costs and providing an optimal workspace for both employees and customers. This supposition would be false. The federal government only protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and genetics. Some states protect against “smoker discrimination,” but their numbers are dwindling.

With these facts in mind, some major corporations in the United States have used pre-employment screening to detect nicotine usage and have refused to hire applicants who test positive.  Corporations like health care insurers, Humana, note that smokers take an excessive number of sick days, present higher overall health risks, and provoke greater interpersonal disputes between coworkers and customers. Other companies seem to agree, and the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the PPACA will undoubtedly encourage more employers to do the same.

Read: Excessive Smoking Makes You Vulnerable To an Array of Disease-Causing Organisms

Benefits to Employers

The benefits to employers of refusing to hire smokers based on pre-employment screening are irrefutable. They include:

  • Enhanced customer service – Many retail chains fight a constant battle against the phenomenon of employee smoking outside the confines of the retail store. Customer complaints are numerous and involve everything from dislike of an employee’s breath to concerns over second-hand smoke.
  • Higher employee morale – Similarly, other employees exhibit the same concerns as customers. A workplace is a confined area, and smoke is an insidious agent. While both employees have a right to conduct their affairs in private, employers are, more and more, siding on the side of the non-smoker.
  • Lower health costs – Most employers will readily admit that this is the most excellent motivator for them to decline to hire applicants who smoke. Smokers reveal a significantly higher rate of absenteeism, more prolonged absences, and more severe illnesses contributing to demonstrably higher health care premiums.
  • Lower “soft” costs – Productivity and employee morale are the chief determiner of soft casts to an employer. Unscheduled smoke breaks wreak havoc with production runs, other employee breaks, and overall efficiency in any office retail or commercial setting. The refusal to hire smokers rids a company of these particular problems and results in a more efficient and productive workplace.

The Bottom Line

The real question is not whether it is fair to keep smokers out of the workplace, but what are the costs that smokers place, albeit unwittingly, on a company and society at large. It is, indeed, a thought-provoking question for those who use pre-employment screening.