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Smoke Screening

Some employees have to take workplace smoking policies home with them.

Eric A. Nieves doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. "Thousands of companies have implemented this," says the director of human resources for the city of St. Cloud, Florida. In March, the city became one of a handful of Florida cities that are following the example of North Miami, which stopped hiring tobacco users in 1990 and won the ensuing discrimination case in the Florida Supreme Court in 1995.

The furor in media and workers' rights circles is fueled by how far St. Cloud will go to ensure the rules are enforced. North Miami never asked applicants to sign affidavits. Nor does it medically test them once they're hired. Though St. Cloud doesn't plan to regularly test anybody, it's still an option for employees whose cheating becomes a problem.

The ACLU hopes this trend toward policing employees' lifestyle choices will stop with smoking, but employers nationwide are seeing new opportunities to both cut insurance costs and improve employee productivity. The city of Athens, Georgia, has already considered regulations imposing similar guidelines for people with high cholesterol. "It's a very slippery slope when you start getting into those sort of lifestyle factors," says Angie Brooks, chair of the ACLU's Central Florida chapter.

St. Cloud will, for the time being, stand fast on that slope and not expand its restrictions to other aspects of people's lifestyles. Nieves explains: "The devastating impact of smoking makes [all other risks] pale in comparison." But that makes no difference to the 26 states that have laws partially or fully protecting employees from discrimination based on legal activities they participate in outside work.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Smoke Screening.

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