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Smoking at work

Back in the good old days...

Back in the good old days...

Smoking may have been banned in the workplace throughout the UK, but smoking is still an issue for many employers and their employees. Unfortunately the emotive nature of the debate often sees common sense relegated to the bottom of the list when employers are considering what type of smoking policy to introduce.

While it is against the law to discriminate against people on the basis, for example, of race and religion, it is perfectly legal for employers to refuse to hire smokers and even, under certain circumstances, fire them because they have smoked a cigarette – even outside – during working hours.

In December 2005 the World Health Organisation said it would no longer recruit people who smoke or otherwise use tobacco. The ban applies to any applicants who smoke and say they would continue to smoke, either daily or occasionally. 

In January 2005 four employees at a healthcare company based in Michigan, USA, were fired after they refused the firm’s ultimatum to quit smoking. The company began random drug tests for nicotine at the beginning of that year saying it would fire workers who failed the test or refused to quit smoking.

Other US firms are refusing to hire applicants who admit they smoke while many American companies require workers to take breathalyser tests that detect traces of carbon monoxide in the lungs or else submit to urine tests to detect nicotine. In Florida a sheriff’s office demanded that all job applicants who have a recent history of smoking pass a polygraph test proving they no longer smoke outside work. (This was later rescinded when the sheriff’s office was unable to recruit enough properly qualified police officers.)

US legal experts say there’s not much smokers can do if other bosses bring in similar rules. Kathleen Bogas, National Employment Lawyers’ Association vice president, said: “This will empower employers to take further steps to restrict the rights of employees – and that is the tragedy.” 

In the UK reports that British companies were refusing to employ smokers, even if they promised not to smoke during working hours, first appeared in 2001. After Forest highlighted the issue, the issue did not reappear until October 2004 when anti-smoking campaigners called for Manchester health workers to be banned from lighting up in public - even when they are off duty.

The call came after health bosses in Suffolk announced plans to sack staff caught smoking, while wearing uniform or identity badges even if they are off the premises or in their own cars. The moves would be one step further than the toughest bans currently in place in the region, which stop some council and hospital staff from smoking on work premises.

That same month it was reported that bosses of a UK company, who dismissed an employee after 15 minutes when they found she smoked, acted legally. Lawyer Cathy Tailby said, “There is no law which would expressly prevent an employer imposing a condition that it will only employ non-smokers. As a rule, an employer can employ whomever it wants, so long as it does not breach a statute that outlaws particular sorts of discrimination.”

In January 2006 ambulance staff in Staffordshire were banned from smoking in public even when off-duty, if they can be recognised by their uniform or name badge. Spokesman Bob Lee said the tough measures were being brought in, in common with other health organisations across the country. “I am not defending smoking but, for some people, smoking is a form of stress relief,” he said. “But this is the policy we are having to bring in due to national guidelines and government pressure.”

The following month BT announced it would ban its workers from smoking in its offices and vans. BT’s 100,000 employees across the world, including 20,000 outside the UK will not be allowed to smoke on company premises or in vans bearing the BT logo. The decision was “warmly welcomed by anti-smoking groups who urged other companies to follow suit”.

In March 2006 two leading luxury hotels in Scotland threatened to sack staff that smell of smoke. In a move that goes well beyond what is required by the law, the hotels issued strict guidelines to hundreds of staff on complying with the legislation. 

In April 2006 Marks & Spencer employees were banned from lighting up in public with their uniforms on show. Bosses barred workers from smoking outside stores a week after banning it inside company premises and vehicles.

In May 2006 a Dublin-based e-commerce business advertised for new employees saying that smokers were not welcome. The Advertising Authority of Ireland confirmed that the advertisement did not contravene its code and the Irish Government said they had no power to clamp down on such advertisements. Company director Philip Tobin commented, “If I get away with this, there is no doubt in my mind that other firms will follow suit and I certainly hope that is the case.” 

That month in Wales, Denbighshire council said it planned to ban staff from smoking within working hours, including in their own cars. Employees who work outside, either as part of a group or on their own, would also be banned from smoking while on duty. 

Meanwhile, in England, a company in Howdendyke extended its no smoking policy to a half-mile radius of the firm’s buildings. Anyone at the warehouse who was seen smoking would be sacked.

In June 2006 seven supermarket workers in Scotland were fired for smoking. The employees of Morrisons in Inverurie lost their jobs after they were caught on CCTV having a cigarette break during the night shift.

Unusually, smokers have to look west - to the United States - for signs of common sense. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times reported that company moves against employees who smoke could backlash. Apparenty, around 30 states have passed legislation prohibiting companies from discriminating against people who embrace lifestyle choices such as smoking.

Forest's view

Smoking in the workplace should be approached like any other workplace issue - as a management problem to be solved - rather than allowing emotion to govern the decision making process. A solution that accommodates both non-smokers and smokers has to be better than one that openly discriminates against one party.

A poorly conceived smoking policy - banning smoking anywhere on company property - can have a profoundly negative effect on both staff and management. The worst of all solutions is prohibition without consultation, a policy that leaves many employees feeling neglected and hard done to.

A failure to make proper provision for smokers within the premises - leaving them no with alternative but to smoke at, or nearby, the entrance to the premises - reflects badly on the employer because it illustrates an inconsiderate attitude towards staff who smoke, and looks unpleasant for any client approaching to do business. 

Total prohibition can lead to increased stress on individuals which in turn will result in reduced efficiency.

Creating the right smoking policy for your workplace requires the right information, and making it work will depend on the co-operation of all staff. Taking the following steps should enable employers to (a) make a rational decision and (b) involve employees so you can effect a policy that will actually work.

  1. Set-up a working committee to formulate the smoking policy. Include management and employees (smokers and non-smokers).
  2. Circulate a general questionnaire to staff to find out the percentage who smoke, their location, and their views on restrictions to smoking in the workplace. The aim is to establish whether there is a need for restrictions, and how these might best operate to ensure that the needs of both smokers and non-smokers are met. Also, consider visitors to the premises and their attitudes to restrictions or prohibition in the areas they use.
  3. Investigate the general quality of air in the building. If environmental tobacco smoke is not being removed this is indicative of a general problem with air quality because air pollutants that arise from office furniture and material won't be removed either.
  4. Hold an interdepartmental consultation involving office administration and human resources to determine local laws, building design and so on.
  5. Collate the results of this research as the basis for devising the policy that will be introduced. It is important that staff are made aware of the results, and given the opportunity to discuss them and the type of policy under consideration.
  6. Define the areas where smoking is prohibited by law, ordinances or codes.
  7. Determine the areas where smoking is permitted giving consideration to single occupier offices, shared offices, open plan offices, staff canteens, conference rooms, other public areas and company vehicles. 
  8. Consider a complaints procedure in line with usual procedures on the basis of objective criteria.
  9. Communicate in writing to all members of staff informing them of the new policy and when it will be introduced.
  10. Ensure that potential employees are aware of the smoking policy. Advertised vacancies, for example, should have a statement about the smoking policy. If, however, you introduce a no-smoking policy do not make the mistake of advertising for 'non-smokers only'. This is blatant discrimination and Forest won't think twice about blowing the whistle to the nearest newspaper!!

Alternatives to prohibition

Whatever happens, employers must think very carefully before introducing a total ban on smoking breaks. Consider alternative options. Remember: prohibition should be a last resort not a first option.

Most important of all - consult your workforce. A total ban on smoking breaks is a draconian step that should not be forced on smokers, many of whom may consider themselves to be more efficient in their work if they are allowed to occasionally light up.

If some people abuse the situation and take too many smoking breaks, that is a sign of weak management.

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"Tobacco is not an illegal substance yet the government is persecuting a minority. I think that's a disgrace in a social democracy."

Sir Ronald Harwood,
Playwright and screenwriter

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