Employees at Weyco, an insurance benefits administrator in Okemos, Michigan are knee-deep in a corporate controversy that enables their boss to terminate them if they smoke. Health aficionado and company president Howard Weyers initiated a plan last year to keep his employees from smoking by initially fining offenders and requiring their attendance at a smoking cessation class in which a smoking counselor was brought in to help moderate. In January, Weyers tightened his policy, requiring that his 200 employees undergo mandatory testing for smoking and random breathalyzers. Those who fail will be fired.
As usual, the American Civil Liberties Union and others attempted, to no avail, to halt the testing by arguing that employees’ personal lives are meant to remain just that — personal.
Honestly, I doubt that Weyers has intentionally made invidious distinctions between smokers and non—smokers. To Weyers, a healthy worker is more apt to be productive, and in many regards this is probably true. From a cost perspective, non—smokers are also less of a financial burden on a firm. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2002, annual productivity losses and health care costs were over $3,000 per smoker. With already-rising health care fees, Weyers has stated that he, as a small business owner, simply cannot afford to insure smoking employees. Furthermore, Weyer’s actions are completely legal in the state of Michigan. This state is one of 20 with no legislation preventing employers from banning smoking at or away from the workplace.
And this is by no means the first form of so-called “lifestyle discrimination.” Until the mid-1990s, several airlines enforced policies that limited how much a flight attendant could weigh. The Boy Scouts of America have vehemently enacted an anti-gay hiring policy. And just last year, Lynne Gobbell was fired from her job at a conservative insulation firm in Alabama for driving to work with a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker in the rear windshield of her Chevy Lumina.
Fairness dictates that only those traits that hinder one’s ability to successfully perform in a job should be grounds for termination. Yet the division between property creates a malady, in that courts are hindered from enforcing such a regulation in the private sphere.
But we, as employees, are also at fault. Guised under the fallacy of free will, many of us surrender jurisdiction over our lives to employers without even realizing it. One of the highlights of my semester at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business is undergoing the internship acquisition process. Perfecting resumes, ironing my business suit, schmoozing with recruiters, remembering to maintain good posture and exude vivaciousness — the painstaking lengths we go to keep up appearances is largely a charade. But deceit is the name of the game — it’s not so much what you know, but what you can make other people think you know. Companies hire those candidates who embody — or at least can feign in a 30-minute interview — certain corporate tenets. No one would employ me if he knew that money is perhaps the largest impetus driving Business School students, or that despite the bullet points on my resume, I am completely disorganized with no perception of punctuality.
Even after getting a foot in the door, the sham persists. A common business confession is that those most apt to receive promotions or bonuses are employees who “fit” into some nebulous managerial mold versus straight competency. In other words, those extra minutes spent playing the lickspittle at the water cooler or throwing back a few brews with the boss after work do pay off. Those who invest time in “fitting in” get rewarded, while their rebellious counterparts are sent packing.
This is synonymous in many regards to Weyco — the only distinction is the grounds for firing. Whether it is for smoking or for not being a “team player,” the end-result is the same: Employees are judged based upon subjective criteria and the discretion of their employers, and we as employees aggravate the situation by participating in this status quo.
Forcing employees to surrender personal autonomy definitely treads the dangerous line of legalizing discrimination. Let Weyco serve as the caveat and not the catalyst: What begins today as an impediment to smoking or a mandatory uniform could quite conceivably legitimize homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. within the workplace down the line, under the innocuous pretext of increasing productivity.
Krisnamurthy can be reached at email@example.com.