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Terminating smokers: Encourage lifestyle changes first

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in Firing,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Issue: Some employers have begun firing employees who smoke and refusing to hire job candidates who do. Should you do the same?

Benefit/risk: Corporate smoke-outs can reduce your health costs but can also spark legal fires.

Action: Until the smoke clears on that tactic's legality, use the following tips before banning smokers from your employ.

In the past year, several employers have fired employees who smoke. Examples: Benefits vendor Weyco Inc. tests employees for nicotine. Its policy makes smoking, even if it's done at home, a firing offense. Alaska Airlines won't hire smokers.

Can you do the same? Legally speaking, the answer depends on two main factors: your state law and how much risk you're willing to accept.

Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia protect employees from being fired or discriminated against because of their use of "lawful products outside the workplace," which would include tobacco products.

Because no such "lifestyle discrimination" law exists in Michigan, Weyco can legally ban smokers.

While that practice may be legal in some states, it's still not a popular choice. Only 1 percent of the businesses surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management currently refuse to hire smokers and only 5 percent said they prefer not to hire smokers.

Our advice: Don't ban hiring smokers before considering these points:

1. Consider your industry and organization. If you work for a health care company or an education institution, for example, a no-smoking policy might make sense. But it may be unrealistic in other places.

2. Don't single out employees for lifestyle choices. Even if your state laws allow it, firing smokers can spark a lawsuit. And even if you win, the case could be disruptive, costly and time-consuming. Smoking bans also will limit your recruiting pool. Examine your willingness to accept such risks.

3. Offer incentives and assistance. Encouraging healthy behaviors can go a long way toward changing lifestyle habits. Many employers offer cash or gift incentives to quit smoking and subsidize smoking-cessation classes. Some even set higher health-insurance premium levels for employees who smoke.

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