Monday, August 07, 2006

IN MY VIEW: Why Refusing to Hire Smokers to Uphold a Public Image Demonstrates Distaste and Hatred for Smokers Rather than Any Sound Reasoning

In Friday's post, I argued that the proposed Snohomish Health District policy of refusing to hire smokers in order to improve the public image of the health agency is unjustified because it is discriminatory and represents an undue intrusion into the privacy and autonomy of lawful behavior by employees that has no direct bearing on job performance or the mission and values of the employer.

Today, I will make the case for why the stated justification for this policy reveals that the true underlying motivating factor is hatred and distaste for smokers, rather than any true concern with the image of public health.

The Rest of the Story

There are 4 reasons why refusing to hire smokers in order to uphold a healthful public image demonstrates distaste and hatred for smokers rather than any true concern for public health image.

1. We're talking about smoking in the home, not at work:

If we were talking about a policy by which the Snohomish Health District were going to prohibit smoking by employees on the job (at work), then the argument that the policy was motivated by a concern for upholding the public image of the District would hold water. But we're not. The policy has nothing to do with smoking at work. It has to do with smoking in the privacy of one's own home.

Members of the public doing business with the health department (and even fellow employees) would necessarily have no way of even knowing which employees smoke and which do not. These employees could (and I'm sure would) be prohibited from smoking in the workplace so people would not necessarily know that they smoked.

Smokers do not have signs over their heads indicating that they are smokers. It is exceedingly difficult to determine whether someone is a smoker or not. Even in a medical setting, I can tell you that it is very difficult to know whether someone smokes or not and we often need to do relatively invasive testing of biological markers (e.g., cotinine levels) to determine whether a person smokes or not.

If you cut off a piece of a person's hair or have them urinate in a cup and then analyze the specimen in the lab, you'll know whether a person smokes or not. But when you go in to buy your dog license, chances are you're not going to ask the receptionist for a sample of her hair before you're willing to hand over the money for the license. "Before I will do business with you, I just have to send a piece of your hair to the state laboratory for testing to make sure that you're not a smoker and therefore destroying the image of the health department."

2. People who use smokeless tobacco or smoke only occasionally are precluded from employment:

If someone uses smokeless tobacco on their own time, outside of the office, how does it possibly alter the image of the health department? The public would have no possible way of knowing that any particular employee used chewing tobacco or snuff, assuming that they are not using it at work. So what possible effect could this have on the health department's public image? No one has any idea whether any employee happens to be a smokeless tobacco user.

The policy is, in fact, built around an intrusive inquisition into the personal habits of individuals on their own private time. It is not based on interviewing a potential job candidate and making a determination that the applicant exudes some sort of appearance that is inappropriate for the job. It relies instead on the person's honesty in answering an inquisition into whether they use any tobacco products.

Moreover, how does a person smoking an occasional cigarette change the image of the department? You would never know if someone was an occasional smoker anyway. Suppose the person is not a regular smoker, but that they occasionally smoke a cigar. How does hiring that person alter the image of the health department?

The truth be told, it doesn't alter the image of the department at all. But not hiring that person simply because they occasionally smoke a cigar does change its image. It makes the department seem like a bunch of self-righteous bigots.

3. Employees who currently smoke or use other tobacco products are excluded from the policy:

This makes it clear that there is no sincere interest in changing the image of the health department. If there were a sincere interest in creating a "healthful" image by excluding smokers from employment, then you'd have to get rid of your smokers. You can refuse to hire all the smokers and occasional cigar lighter-uppers that you want, but if you have a bunch of smokers in your department, it's not going to change your image. The only thing it does it makes you look like a bunch of hypocrites.

4. No other unhealthy lifestyle choices are considered important to the policy, even those which the public can easily see without invasive questioning:

If you're worried about the public knowing that your employees are making unhealthy life decisions, then smoking at home should be the least of your concerns. Smokers don't come with signs stating that they smoke. But if your employees are fat, that is something that is immediately obvious. If you're concerned about displaying an unhealthy image to the public, then isn't that the first thing that ought to go?

But when you get right down to it, why even worry about chronic disease risk factors? If you want to display a healthy image to the public, why not just hire a bunch of young, thin, attractive, muscular individuals? Why not essentially hire the way a health club might hire? A health club truly needs to display a healthful image to the public. You can't have personal trainers who look terribly unhealthy. No one would take them seriously. So if Snohomish Health District is really concerned about its image, I recommend that they start requiring all applicants to look like personal trainers. Have applicants come in for interviews wearing work-out suits. Work them out for a half hour on a treadmill and some free weights.

I conclude from all of this that the true motivating factor underlying this effort, and others like it on the part of a large number of employers, is not public image. Instead, I think it's an underlying hatred and distaste for smokers and other tobacco product users. A desire to punish them. A desire to ostracize them. A desire to make their lives as miserable as possible.

The rest of the story is that when you really stop and take the time to analyze the argument being made by those who purport to be trying to protect a healthful image by precluding smokers from employment, you realize that the argument falls apart with haste. And the only thing you're left with is the impression that there are a lot of people out there who have a personal disdain for smokers and would like to see them punished for what they view as a stupid personal decision.

No comments: