The best way to hire productive employees is to look for people with qualifications, talent, honesty and commitment. Now, however, a small but growing number of employers are looking for something else as well: job applicants who don't smoke. As much as we despair of the death and damage caused by tobacco, this new employment criterion strikes us as a lamentable and unwarranted intrusion into applicants' private lives — and one that should worry anyone in this country who has an elevated risk for any sort of injury or illness. In other words, most of us.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System, which includes the university hospital, is the latest employer to adopt these ill-considered new rules. Beginning in July, it will reject any job seeker who admits to having been a smoker within the previous six months. The university's health system justifies the new no-smokers policy on the grounds that it will have a healthier workforce and lowered health-benefit costs.
It's one thing to ask people to bear more of the cost of their preventable illness by paying higher premiums, but to deprive them of the chance at a livelihood because they engage in perfectly legal behavior is outrageous. By all means, outlaw smoking in the workplace, but as long as employees are doing a good job, their legal, personal behavior on their own time and outside the office is just that — personal.