U-Haul Joins List of Companies Adopting a Nicotine-Free Hiring Policy
Recently, nationwide haulage firm U-Haul announced they would be the latest company to adopt a nicotine-free hiring policy. In short, this means that the company has the ability to reject applications from anyone using nicotine in any form. While on the surface this might sound like a step in the right direction, is it really something companies should be able to do, and what benefits does it actually bring to the company and its potential employees? This article looks into the issue in a bit more detail to see what’s really going on behind the announcement.
The idea of rejecting applications from people who use nicotine is nothing new. The earliest example dates back to 1985, when Alaska Airlines brought in the policy. Similarly, such policies are in place at high-profile medical centers that often have a particular image they’re looking to maintain. And from a nationwide perspective, 21 states currently have legislation in place that make these hiring policies possible. However, U-Haul is one of the first comanies to enforce such laws on a national level, although this will only apply to states in which this policy is allowed.
On the surface, rejecting applicants based on nicotine use sounds like it could be beneficial for all involved. After all, it means that generally employees will be healthier, there will be fewer work issues, and in theory productivity will be higher because employees aren’t stopping for smoke breaks. Similarly it also means that U-Haul won’t have to deal with smoking-related health issues when it comes to their employees’ healthcare. Overall then, it seems like this could be a good policy for both employer and employees.
When you dig a little deeper into the ethics behind such a decision, though, things don’t seem as rosy as they do on the surface. For example, such a policy disproportionately affects people from poorer backgrounds, who are generally more likely to smoke because of stress, economic issues, and boredom during unemployment. After all, nearly half of all unemployed people smoke, and we all know it’s a difficult habit to kick. In short then, such a hiring policy means that people who might already be in a difficult position, and might be struggling to find work, will now also have to deal with the issue of quitting their nicotine use if they want to work for a company like U-Haul.
While a hiring policy like this might seem like it’s working in the interests of both employer and employee, this might not really be the case. It gives U-Haul the ability to pick and choose their employees based on an activity that is realistically unrelated to their work, and might in turn open the door for similar policies to be introduced by other companies later down the line. However, this is balanced against the average savings on healthcare for U-Haul, as it will hardly come as a surprise that nicotine use becomes expensive when it comes to healthcare.
Is this kind of policy acceptable?
Realistically, U-Haul are perfectly within their legal rights to bring in a policy that rejects applicants based on their nicotine use, but does that really mean they should? We all know that nicotine use is harmful, whether this is smoking cigarettes or vaping. Sure, vaping is “safer” than smoking cigarettes, although it’s still too early to tell and many more long-term studies must be conducted to really confirm this is the case. Either way, it’s safe to say that nicotine use is harmful for the user’s health.
On the other hand, though, smoking by default is only legally done by adults, and adults consent to their own activities. It should not be down to an employer to determine what their employees do, even with health-related activities, but this is a fine line to cross. Considering nicotine use could end up costing a company money, there is precedent for them to enforce such a rule. In fact, it’s estimated that smoking can cost an employer thousands of dollars per year per employee, although these figures have been disputed by some experts.
But does rejecting applicants based on their nicotine use amount to discrimination, in the same way that employers can’t discriminate based on gender identity, race, or sexual orientation? In short, no, because nicotine use is a behavior, and as mentioned earlier, is something effectively voluntary that adults can consent to, and give up when they want to. While it doesn’t equate to discrimination in the traditional work-place sense, there are some grounds for it being classed as a form of bias because it’s classed as an “out of work activity.”
Although 21 states have laws that allow employers to reject nicotine users, 29 states have laws in place that safeguard employees from discrimination based on their out of work activities. These laws effectively allow people to continue out of work activities that have no impact on their ability to work, providing these are legal activities of course.
What does this mean for the future?
Of course there’s no arguing with the fact that smoking is harmful to the user’s health; this is a well-known fact. Considering this in turn can affect an employer based on healthcare contributions, lost productivity, time off work because of illness, and a host of other reasons, it seems fair that a company such as U-Haul (which already makes plenty of efforts to increase their productivity as much as possible) would bring in a policy that prevents nicotine users from working for them.
However, this policy has the potential to disproportionately affect poorer people or those in vulnerable circumstances. Similarly, it’s the first step on a slippery slope that might have no acceptable end in sight. A more effective use of time, funds, and policy would instead be provide the means for nicotine users to quit the habit through their employer, such as access to CBT. Doing this would allow employers like U-Haul to cut down on their smoking-related losses in the long term while also opening a wider net to those looking for employment.