The Case Against Hiring Smokers

nosmoking2I’m going to tick off nearly every smoker who visits this website — and delight most every non-smoker — by detailing why it’s a good rule of thumb to not hire smokers. (A Rule of Thumb is a principle whose broad application is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable in every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for approximating a determination.)

The catalyst for this column is an email I received a couple weeks ago from a small business owner:

Jim,

My father and I own a small business and we are having problems with hiring smokers. The last few hires have been smokers and we seem to have more lost productivity due to smoke breaks. How do weed those candidates out without infringing upon any labor laws? Are there any questions that we can use?  

Thank you,

A.J.

Following is my reply: 

Hi A.J.,

Thanks for the note. Below is a passage and a couple questions from my book (Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer) related to smoking. The first step before moving forward on pre-employment questions would be to ask a competent employment attorney if smokers are a protected class in your locale. They could also tell you if the questions I list below and your company adopting a no-smoking agreement are legal where you do business.

Don’t hire smokers. (Note: This rule of thumb might not be legal in some states — especially those along Tobacco Road.) This is another rule of thumb that raises eyebrows, but every non-smoker with whom I’ve talked it through sees the wisdom in it. The only folks who disagree are, predictably, some smokers. It is almost a certainty that a regular tobacco habit will diminish smokers’ productivity, depreciate your real estate, annoy their non-smoking co-workers, and damage employee-manager relationships. Plus, managing this issue adds an unnecessary level of grief and liability to your business.

My first summer job was in the employee services department at the Erie Zoological Gardens. (You might think everybody who works at a zoo shovels elephant poop all day long, but that’s not the case. I worked in the concession stands, ticket booth, carousel, and other areas where employees interacted with visitors. I smelled lots of elephant poop but never touched the stuff.) My last year on the job was the summer after my freshman year in college. A new hiring manager had brought in a wave of new high schoolers, some of them smokers. The previous hiring manager never hired smokers, so this was my first exposure to nicotine-addicted team members. I learned firsthand that their habit will harm:

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  • Their productivity: After we’d served a flurry of customers on busy days, the concession stand needed all hands on deck to wipe the counters, refill the ketchup dispensers, and fill the napkin holders before the next wave hit. But the smokers needed a quick hit. So they’d leave the concession stand to smoke in the employee break room, which meant the size of the clean-up crew was cut in half.
  • Your real estate: Our break room was already crummier than the monkey cages, but the smokers made it intolerable. When I punched out for lunch, I’d have to walk through a smoke-filled hallway. When the smokers weren’t taking a(nother) break, the room was a mess because they tossed their cigarette butts on the floor.
  • The attitude of non-smoking co-workers: Based on what you’ve just read, how do you think I felt about my smoking teammates? When we needed helping hands, they weren’t there. They trashed the break room. And they were belligerent when asked to change their behavior. “It’s a habit,” was their excuse. I told them playing basketball was my habit. So would they mind if I took a break during a rush of customers to dribble around the giraffe exhibit? They argued that their habit was excusable because it was an addiction. I’m sure my employer enjoyed paying us for having these conversations.
  • Employee-manager relationships: The veteran employees tasked with training the new-hire smokers resented the extra grief they had to endure. “Where’s Steph? She’s been gone for 20 minutes now.” “You just had your hands near your mouth. Wash your hands before touching the food.” “You’ve already taken three breaks today. Do you really need another?”

Hiring casual smokers is acceptable, but there are very few true casual smokers. Candidates often smoke more than they claim they do. I’ve listed a bunch of reasons not to tolerate smoking and the associated grief it creates in your workplace, but here’s the biggest one: Smoking causes cancer.

These pre-employment questions may be illegal in some states where smokers are a protected class.

  1. Do you smoke?
  2. Everyone who works here signs a no-smoking agreement. Smoking is not permitted on company premises — in the building or on the parking lot — at any time of day or night, including weekends, at lunchtime even if you leave the premises, at any company function anywhere, or at trade shows at any time. Would you sign that no-smoking agreement?

I hope this information is helpful. If you have more questions or would like to discuss, please let me know.

Thanks & Happy Hiring!

Jim

If it’s legal where you live, I recommend adopting a no-smoking agreement and discussing smoking in your pre-employment process. Some companies go as far as urine testing for nicotine prior to making a job offer.

Review your HR and hiring practices at least annually to see if they need updated. HR law and your organization change frequently. For example, would you now apply this rule of thumb to employees who work 100 percent from home?

Jim Roddy is the president of Jameson Publishing and author of the book “Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer,” which features hiring lessons, interview best practices, and recruiting strategies for managers through the perspective of a cancer-surviving executive. For more information on the book, go to http://www.HireLikeYouJustBeatCancer.com.

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22 Comments on “The Case Against Hiring Smokers

  1. I think these frank, potentially offensive discussions are important even though they’re hard to have. I read a statistic once that smokers lose 20% productivity in a workday. I don’t know if it’s true or not.

  2. I think these frank, potentially offensive discussions are important even though they’re hard to have. I read a statistic once that smokers lose 20% productivity in a workday. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I can believe it seeing it detailed in this article.

  3. I live in Nigeria where most companies don’t even permit smoking on their premises and usually, your only break is your lunch break if you are even able to take it. Most people I know smoke before or after they come to the office. If that was the case of smokers in your neck of the woods, would smoker-hiring be an issue?

    1. Thanks for the comment. The devil is in the details of your non-smoking agreement. My company’s non-smoking agreement states that employees cannot smoke during the work day, on premise, during conferences they attend, etc. So if someone wants to smoke on the weekend, which would not effect their work or their co-workers, that’s permitted. If someone smokes before work, typically that smoke gets into their clothing which causes a disruption at work.

  4. I live in Nigeria where most companies don’t even permit smoking on their premises and usually, your only break is your lunch break if you are even able to take it. Most people I know smoke before or after they come to the office. If that was the case of smokers in your neck of the woods, would smoker-hiring be an issue?

    1. Thanks for the comment. The devil is in the details of your non-smoking agreement. My company’s non-smoking agreement states that employees cannot smoke during the work day, on premise, during conferences they attend, etc. So if someone wants to smoke on the weekend, which would not effect their work or their co-workers, that’s permitted. If someone smokes before work, typically that smoke gets into their clothing which causes a disruption at work.

  5. Don’t hire gays. (Note: This rule of thumb might not be legal in some states — especially those along the California.) This is another rule of thumb that raises eyebrows, but every non-gay with whom I’ve talked it through sees the wisdom in it. The only folks who disagree are, predictably, some gays. It is almost a certainty that a regular same-sex habit will diminish gays’ productivity, depreciate your real estate, annoy their non-gay co-workers, and damage employee-manager relationships. Plus, managing this issue adds an unnecessary level of grief and liability to your business.

  6. Don’t hire gays. (Note: This rule of thumb might not be legal in some states — especially those along the California.) This is another rule of thumb that raises eyebrows, but every non-gay with whom I’ve talked it through sees the wisdom in it. The only folks who disagree are, predictably, some gays. It is almost a certainty that a regular same-sex habit will diminish gays’ productivity, depreciate your real estate, annoy their non-gay co-workers, and damage employee-manager relationships. Plus, managing this issue adds an unnecessary level of grief and liability to your business.

  7. It would be impossible to “weed” out the effects of smoking from the 9,000,000 other variables a person brings to a team environment. If Lebron or Curry smoked, I’d still hire ’em. If you are talking about minimum wage, unskilled work, sure, use whatever rule you want to use. I think the President of the United States smokes, last I heard.

    1. Martin: I agree with Todd — well played on the pun. I also agree with you about LeBron and Curry to a degree. Their performance is so far above the rest that you would tolerate some deficiencies. But if they needed to take breaks during games to smoke (or for any other reason) which reduced the amount of time they were available to help their team win and had bad attitudes about it, they would be less effective teammates.

  8. It would be impossible to “weed” out the effects of smoking from the 9,000,000 other variables a person brings to a team environment. If Lebron or Curry smoked, I’d still hire ’em. If you are talking about minimum wage, unskilled work, sure, use whatever rule you want to use. I think the President of the United States smokes, last I heard.

    1. Martin: I agree with Todd — well played on the pun. I also agree with you about LeBron and Curry to a degree. Their performance is so far above the rest that you would tolerate some deficiencies. But if they needed to take breaks during games to smoke (or for any other reason) which reduced the amount of time they were available to help their team win and had bad attitudes about it, they would be less effective teammates.

  9. (I’ve deleted the end of this comment, because it was offensive to an ethnic group. I may have considered leaving it and letting the commenter live with it, but they are posting anonymously, so that doesn’t work. — Todd Raphael/ERE)

    Seriously Jim?? The only reason smokers are now less productive is because they have been gradually ostracized to basement 100 feet below earth’s surface. The naive young pup you obviously are probably doesn’t realize that there are still a large number of middle age baby boomers that smoke. Unlike yourself, people my age (53), and older grew up with people smoking everywhere without a second thought.
    Smokers could and would light up everywhere except a church sanctuary and the actual playing area of high school basketball games. Everywhere else was acceptable. I can still picture Johnny Carson and Dave Letterman having a cigarette and cigar lit most of the show. I can still remember smoking allowed on most flights – that could even smoke out a smoker.
    My point is if a smoker is allowed their own smoking space (away from non smokers), their productivity would likely be on par with a non smoker since they would have to go outside with their tape measure to mark off 100 feet from the building, have their cigarette, put on new clothes so you wouldn’t endure the smell and return to what they were doing.
    I personally wish I hadn’t started at age 11, when I could walk to the gas station, put a few quarters in the machine while no one was looking, and pull the lever. While I can’t deny that smoking is certainly a bad habit, I, like most smokers ENJOY smoking.
    I still have no idea how any governmental agency can impose rules on someone who owns a bar and tell them that no smoking is allowed. That is the most unconstitutional thing I’ve ever heard. Reverse discrimination as well? If an owner elects to allow his patrons to smoke in his/her establishment, how in the hell can a city council tell him otherwise? People who do not wish to be exposed to second hand smoke DO NOT have to visit that establishment, nor does a non-smoker have to work there. It is THEIR choice…not the city council or other gov. agency.
    Vocal, self righteous non-smokers like yourself usually waste as much time worrying about what the smokers are doing that your production is most likely about the same as you say their production is??

    1. You forget that smokers, in addition to killing themselves, are killing anyone who is subjected to their pollution. So how is THAT “constitutional”?

  10. (I’ve deleted the end of this comment, because it was offensive to an ethnic group. I may have considered leaving it and letting the commenter live with it, but they are posting anonymously, so that doesn’t work. — Todd Raphael/ERE)

    Seriously Jim?? The only reason smokers are now less productive is because they have been gradually ostracized to basement 100 feet below earth’s surface. The naive young pup you obviously are probably doesn’t realize that there are still a large number of middle age baby boomers that smoke. Unlike yourself, people my age (53), and older grew up with people smoking everywhere without a second thought.
    Smokers could and would light up everywhere except a church sanctuary and the actual playing area of high school basketball games. Everywhere else was acceptable. I can still picture Johnny Carson and Dave Letterman having a cigarette and cigar lit most of the show. I can still remember smoking allowed on most flights – that could even smoke out a smoker.
    My point is if a smoker is allowed their own smoking space (away from non smokers), their productivity would likely be on par with a non smoker since they would have to go outside with their tape measure to mark off 100 feet from the building, have their cigarette, put on new clothes so you wouldn’t endure the smell and return to what they were doing.
    I personally wish I hadn’t started at age 11, when I could walk to the gas station, put a few quarters in the machine while no one was looking, and pull the lever. While I can’t deny that smoking is certainly a bad habit, I, like most smokers ENJOY smoking.
    I still have no idea how any governmental agency can impose rules on someone who owns a bar and tell them that no smoking is allowed. That is the most unconstitutional thing I’ve ever heard. Reverse discrimination as well? If an owner elects to allow his patrons to smoke in his/her establishment, how in the hell can a city council tell him otherwise? People who do not wish to be exposed to second hand smoke DO NOT have to visit that establishment, nor does a non-smoker have to work there. It is THEIR choice…not the city council or other gov. agency.
    Vocal, self righteous non-smokers like yourself usually waste as much time worrying about what the smokers are doing that your production is most likely about the same as you say their production is??

    1. You forget that smokers, in addition to killing themselves, are killing anyone who is subjected to their pollution. So how is THAT “constitutional”? Smokers who whine about health-related legislation and workplace policies are not only illogical, but clearly not mindful of anyone but themselves in any case, and who would want that in an employee. I also remember smoking on airplanes, having to go through a cloud to get to the non-smoking section in a restaurant, smoking in movie theaters, etc. and guess what? More of us are glad that time is done and over. Good for you that you enjoy smoking – do it in your own home or car, and don’t subject the rest of us to the negative consequences.

  11. How about this as an approach: hire and manage to performance goals instead of micromanaging your employee’s lives. That way if their productivity is sub par for any reason, smoking or otherwise, it wouldn’t freaking matter and you wouldn’t need to have them sign a damn contract promising to be pure and good for you, the almighty employer. I don’t smoke, but I’ve turned down jobs from companies that claimed to be nonsmoking, because these were invariably the same ones that wanted my Facebook and LinkedIn passwords, and who had lots of after work ‘social’ events you couldn’t forego to, you know, go home and live your life.

  12. How about this as an approach: hire and manage to performance goals instead of micromanaging your employee’s lives. That way if their productivity is sub par for any reason, smoking or otherwise, it wouldn’t freaking matter and you wouldn’t need to have them sign a damn contract promising to be pure and good for you, the almighty employer. I don’t smoke, but I’ve turned down jobs from companies that claimed to be nonsmoking, because these were invariably the same ones that wanted my Facebook and LinkedIn passwords, and who had lots of after work ‘social’ events you couldn’t forego to, you know, go home and live your life.

  13. Honestly… it sounds to me like YOU guys had a problem with managing YOUR staff. Break policies exist for a reason. If anyone is trying to sneak in extra breaks (smoker or not) then disciplinary action is in order. Also, smokers should NEVER be allowed to light up around non-smokers. That is on YOUR organization for allowing it in a break room. Lastly, the non-smoking employees had every right to be upset. Why were you allowing smokers all of these extra privileges to begin with (smoking in break rooms, taking extra breaks, and etc)? In the end… it sounds like your organization did not have a “smoker” problem. It seems to have suffered from an “employee management” problem. But hey… whatever makes you blog.

  14. Jim… you seem to be stuck on this notion that smokers are the only ones that attempt to abuse break privileges (which really is not addressing the real reason not to hire them). As an ex-smoker… I can honestly tell you that I only smoked on my designated breaks. But… I saw plenty of smokers as well as non-smokers sneak off for several reasons. Now that I am no longer a smoker, I don’t care if my officemates go outside on a DESIGNATED and TIMED break period that equals what everyone else gets. Our company is pretty picky about taking your legal 2 tens and the unpaid half hour meal break and NO MORE (as they should be, fair is fair). Bottom line: the REAL reason smokers “need not apply” is due to the fact that they raise everyone else’s group health care costs. Seriously… the premiums are astronomical for a company if you allow smokers to enroll. I am not going to debate if that is discriminatory or not on the part of the insurance companies (obesity kills faster than smoking does… but the insurance companies do want to face the political backlash of “hurt feelings” since everyone is blaming genetics now). It is just the way it is: insurance companies charge a ton for allowing smokers to enroll. That is the main reason smokers need not apply to our company. In the end… if you workers (smokers or not) are sneaking off and leaving “the team” stranded, then it is time to stand up and make some examples of officemates that do not comply with the written break policies. Trust me… there are LOTS of non-smokers that screw around way too much on the clock.

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