Employment, Smokers, and Fundamental Ethical Conflicts

I’ve seen two interesting stories recently about smokers — of various kinds — facing trouble with their employers. Both stories raise difficult, perhaps intractable, ethical difficulties, because in both cases the objectives sought by employers are, on the face of things, entirely reasonable; and yet the freedoms sought by employees in these cases are also, I think, very reasonable ones to seek.

First, this piece by A.G. Sulzberger for the NY Times: Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban

…More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living….

I’ve blogged about this issue before. (See: “Smokers Need Not Apply”, from January of 2009.) My conclusion back then was that an employer, no matter how well-intentioned, has no right to tell employees what to do on their own time. They have a right to demand a certain level of performance on the job, and that might have implications for what employees do at home. But what employers have a right to is performance, rather than to a particular lifestyle in pursuit of that performance. Besides, there are lots (and lots and lots) of things employees can do at home that will limit their performance at work. I don’t see smoking as being unique among those, and letting employers screen for (and monitor?) all such behaviours would obviously constitute a massive invasion of privacy.

And then there’s this Reuters piece, reported by Clare Baldwin: Wal-Mart employee fired for medical pot loses case

A federal judge in Michigan on Friday upheld Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s dismissal of an employee for testing positive for marijuana, even though he was using the drug under the state’s medical marijuana law.

Former Wal-Mart employee Joseph Casias said he was using the marijuana to treat pain from an inoperable brain tumor and sinus cancer, and was doing so legally, with a medical marijuana registry card…

This one is trickier because the implications of marijuana — cannabis — for workplace performance are much clearer. Pot (even pot prescribed for very good reasons by a physician) is very likely to affect judgment. And the effects of smoking it can last 2-3 hours — so smoking just before work, or during a break, could reasonably be expected to have a negative impact on performance. But in the case above, the employee involved had what sound like very good reasons, if ever there were any. Wal-Mart is a company that is trying hard to polish its image, and firing people for trying to deal with the pain from their inoperable brain tumor seems inconsistent with that objective.

For me, this is one of those short news stories that immediately makes me wonder what’s really going on here. Is the employee one of “those” employees that a company looks for reasons to fire? Or was his manager an unsympathetic jerk? Or what? Because surely this is an issue that could have been sorted out among reasonable adults, without resorting to lawyers. Could the worker be moved to a position where the possible effects of at-home cannabis use would not be as problematic? Could the employee agree to limit the hours during which he would use cannabis, in return for an exemption from the company’s testing regimen? I don’t know the answer. But living and working together means that we find ways of getting along together, even when we cannot find ways of agreeing.

2 comments so far

  1. jilly on

    I discussed this piece with my 87-year-old mother, who nearly always has an interesting perspective. Her comment: Even when smokers do not smoke in her home, their clothing smells so offensive that it makes her literally ill. But so does heavy perfume and certain other scented products.

    Many companies have programs to reduce the problems posed to environmentally sensitive individuals of everyday chemicals, from those in tobacco smoke to those in shampoo. Such endeavours seem to me to be quite laudable, provided they are undertaken with care. However, the idea that non-impaired persons using legal products can be denied employment because someone finds their perfectly legal behaviour offensive is very troubling.

    Given the state health care debate in the US, it does not surprise me that both of the cases cited are American. The “reduce health care costs” part of the explanation rings scarily true.


    • becka on

      I think the hospitals have more issues to deal with rather than if a person smokes on their own time.

      I know from experience of working at different hospitals. Some doctors who are over worked, may been called in and they had a few drinks in them, or some of the unsanitary conditions of some hospitals.

      I think they need to clean those things up first.

      Do any search about VA hospitals and that will give you an idea of how some hospitals are.

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