Weekly Wrap: A New Workplace Trend – Mandatory Tests for Smokers

The workplace push to get smokers to quit is starting to ruffle some feathers in Arizona.

According to a story this week in the Arizona Republic, “Some Maricopa County employees are fuming over a new health-plan requirement forcing them to submit saliva for nicotine analysis, saying the exam is an invasion of privacy and could be used to collect other sensitive health information.”

This is a touchy issue, because getting employees to focus on healthier habits – whether it be quitting smoking, eating healthier, or working out more – gets into the issue of influencing what people do when they are off the clock, away from work, and in the privacy of their own home. How can an employer regulate such behavior anyway? Is it really any of their business?

Well, more and more employers are saying it is, especially given how an employee’s private behavior (say, packing away the junk food and smoking like a chimney) has an impact on their health, which ultimately has an impact on the employer’s health plan costs.

For the most part, employers have enlisted more voluntary methods to get their workers to change their unhealthy ways – perhaps offering incentives to stop smoking, or subsidized gym memberships to get them to exercise more – but as health care costs increase and federal mandates loom, a number of employers are taking a more serious (some would say punitive) approach toward changing unhealthy employee behaviors.

The nicotine test for public workers in Maricopa County, Arizona (where Phoenix is located), seems to be part of this more serious approach. The newspaper writes:

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The test is intended to reveal whether those being insured are smokers. Employees who decline it are penalized with higher medical-insurance premiums, while those testing negative for tobacco use are spared a premium that is $480 higher per year…

“It seems to be the trend we’re seeing,” said Michelle Gorman, a supervisor in the health-promotion and wellness department for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. “It’s another progression in the whole smoke-free initiative that we’re seeing. It’s quick and non-invasive, it’s just a swab.”

However, some county workers say they cannot afford to refuse the test, and others fear the medical information gleaned from the exams will be used against them or shared with others.

“They gotta do what they gotta do, but it is kind of an invasion of our privacy,” said smoker Dee Webber, a county accounting employee.

Another county employee who requested anonymity for fear of retribution called it “abusive and an infringement of my rights.” She was among a handful of employees – including some on smoking breaks – hanging out at the county administration building in downtown Phoenix recently who thought their employer should be barred from collecting the samples.”

The required nicotine tests represent a ramping up of the employee monitoring process, because “in the past, Maricopa County’s health plan asked employees to fill out paperwork declaring they do not use nicotine. But county officials said the number of employees who self-reported as nicotine users appeared to be too low. They implemented the saliva testing as an attempt to “put some accountability in the program,” said Chris Bradley, director of the county’s Business Strategies and Healthcare Program.”

So is this an isolated incident or wave of the future, a trend that we are going to see spread throughout America? Unfortunately, I think it is a trend we’ll be seeing more of, and it will only add to workplace tensions. Plus it will turn into another compliance issue for HR to worry about – something your HR pro needs like another hole in the head.

But there’s a lot more in the news this week than monitoring smokers in the workplace. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Home Depot streamlines hiring. The Home Depot continues to dig out from a lot of the questionable (some would say bad) people practices of the Bob Nardelli years. The latest, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is to centralize and streamline the hiring process. “The Atlanta-based home improvement chain has found a way to make the (hiring) process easier, as it goes about hiring 60,000 associates this spring … Potential store hires go through two reviews at the corporate level before they are even granted an in-person store interview … The company has a human resources service center near its headquarters, and about 50 employees work on reviewing applications there, while an additional 170 conduct phone interviews with applicants. In all, there are 400 employees working with the potential hires.”
  • Buyout bid for Lawson software. Do you use Lawson HR software in your office? If you do, you might be interested in this story from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “Lawson Software has received an unsolicited $1.8 billion buyout offer from privately held Infor, which is owned by Golden Gate Capital…Lawson, founded in northeast Minneapolis in the 1970s, makes financial and HR software for mid size businesses and school districts. It has been a so-so financial performer since it went public at about $16 per share nearly a decade ago. In recent years it has seen management changes and mergers, reorganizations and layoffs.”
  • Drinking on the job – without getting fired. Given all the St. Patrick’s Day frivolity this week, it makes sense to highlight an HR policy in place at San Francisco online review website Yelp – you can drink on the job, as long as you are monitored. According to a Bloomberg News story, Workers can drink as much as they want, “They just have to be comfortable with full disclosure: Workers badge in to an iPad application attached to the keg that records every ounce they drink.” It’s a story worth reading for anyone who is considering – or perhaps worrying about – letting workers knock down a few after a hard week in the office.
  • The job interview from hell. Ever have a job interview that just was bad from the get go? Well, then this video is for you. Enjoy, but be warned — the language here is pretty raw (just like most job interviews, right?)

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: A New Workplace Trend – Mandatory Tests for Smokers

  1. john, we just talked about when workplace wellness goes from engaging to enforcing in yesterday’s cohealth tweet chat (http://twitter.com/co_health or #co_health). we had a lot of debate about this type of policy, particularly when it’s a no-hire policy versus a hire-and-help-quit one. we also chewed on whether there should be any difference when you’re talking about an addictive behavior. we came to no conclusions.

    but this does seem to be a growing trend, particularly with hospital systems. i think it expresses employers’ increasing bafflement and frustration with moving the health dial.


  2. Didn’t Obamacare include a ban on pre-existing conditions? How is charging smokers higher premiums any different from charging those with diabetes? In large part, smoking is a disease, an addiction, like alcoholism. People cannot simply choose to break an addiction. Studies indicate 20% can’t for smoking. Be interesting to see the court suits in Maricopa Country, which already has a hard time curbing mass murder, if this moves forward.

    1. I don’t agree with your logic at all as I wouldn’t equate smoking with diabetes. Diabetes (or asthma or other similar type diseases) is not a disease of choice…smoking is.

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