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Smoke Screen: Company Culture or Policy?

Two prominent current topics in the newsmedia have sparked debate, raising questions about the nature and extent of rights of employers and employees in the workplace. In a rapidly changing world, the blurred line these topics tread must be more clearly defined before ‘company policy’ becomes becomes an invasion of rights. Employees are asking themselves where company culture ends and infringement begins.

Recently there has been a resurgence in conversation about employers demanding access to employee social media pages on the premise of maintaining company integrity. The debate quickly escalates into a discussion of the personal rights of employees as pertaining to the content and publicity of their Facebook page. Employees are almost uniformly against the practice, but even combined with the efforts of privacy advocates such as the ACLU, the practice has not yet been made illegal. Advocates for monitoring or restricting social networking are quick to bring up the “nothing-to-hide” argument, but digital privacy is still a crucial right in the modern world.

Businesses are also becoming the latest frontier to latch on to the increasingly prevalent trend of bans on smoking. Some employers, such as health insurance giant Humana, have begun to tighten policies related to employee smoking habits, going beyond simply prohibiting smoking during work hours to completely disqualifying smokers from employment. Of course, for Humana, operating in the healthcare industry, the ban on smokers is an obvious measure in line with the company’s mission. For other employers however, a tobacco-free policy can help boost productivity (less employee ‘smoke breaks’) and help to reduce health insurance premiums.

Like keeping close tabs on employee Facebook profiles, these policies get tricky when considering that smoking is, regardless of company views, a completely lawful activity. With the aid of the ACLU, 29 states implemented laws to protect “smokers’ rights,” but federal law permits an employer the right to flat out refuse to hire a nicotine user, because smokers are not recognized as a protected class. Rumors suggest that a number of companies in the Fortune 500 are considering adopting similar bans on smoking, suggesting Humana’s actions may be a sort of glimpse into the future.

Acquiring and retaining productive employees and promoting a better workplace is the obvious desired outcome of hiring strategy for companies in any industry. Before practices like banning smoking or monitoring social network profiles become the norm, however, further scrutiny is necessary to clarify some significant questions about whether employers have the right to independently regulate otherwise lawful behavior.

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