Thursday, April 1, 2010

Need Not Apply

That is part of a phrase once common in America, long before discrimination became criminalized. Discrimination is a word I have addressed before on these pages as defined as a choice between the desirable and the undesirable. Personally, I would never dream of joining an organization - determined to bar my membership - through force of litigation, but I am of the mindset that subscribes to the notion of personal choice only in matters of consequence that do not curtail the lives of others.

Many years ago some businesses would not hire Irish immigrants, for example, because they were widely believed to be drunkards and, as such, unreliable and lazy. Eventually, as the perception was dispelled, businesses were prohibited from discriminating based on nationality, color, sexual preference and so on. So magnanimous had we become that we prided ourselves on being the fairest of them all.

Those signs are making a comeback, however. Businesses are beginning to think that barring employment to individuals based on personal behavior is not only acceptable, but incumbent upon them to enact.

Take St. Luke's Hospital & Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. According to a Philadelphia news organization,, starting May 1st, job applicants will be "screened for nicotine" as part of the hiring process. An excerpt:

Beginning May 1, all prospective employees will be screened for nicotine and will be ineligible for a job if they test positive. Anyone rejected can take the test again in six months and be considered for employment. Current employees will not be affected.

"We decided as an organization the right thing to do for us is to screen these applicants and if they test positive for nicotine, they won't be eligible for hire at that point in time," Bob Zimmel, the hospital's senior vice president of human resources said.
The last time I checked, nicotine was still a legal substance, if only because our government lacks the fortitude to ban it. So the justification for such blatant discrimination thus becomes the "health cost" argument. Fair enough, some would say, and that is how it will tolerated and overlooked, but it leads to only more questions.

If businesses begin screening applicants for behavior possibly detrimental to themselves and, by extension, to the business by way of health costs, where is the line drawn? Will they also screen for cholesterol? What about personal recreational habits? "Snowboarders need not apply", for example. Blacks could be excluded from consideration because sickle cell anemia is almost exclusive to the race.

It sounds ridiculous because it is. That's because the hysteria about smoking has nothing to do with health costs, it's about the stigmatization of a particular group of people who choose to engage in a legal activity. There will almost certainly be court battles waged over this new hiring practice, and no matter one's personal feelings about smoking, fairness should be the ultimate concern here.

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