There’s a new term gaining popularity – lifestyle discrimination. Lifestyle discrimination protects employees against employers who impose certain lifestyle requirements, such as only hiring non-smokers. It can become lifestyle discrimination if the company requires that employees not smoke when they’re not at work, off duty and/or off work premises. A company can require that employees not smoke during their shift or anywhere on company premises, but do they have the right to require the employee not smoke when not at work or not on company property? It seems completely reasonable to say no smoking is permitted while at work or on company premises, but if we think about the addictive power of something such as smoking, is it realistic to think that an employee can just not smoke for the 8 plus hours they’re at work?
Other lifestyle discrimination allegations have come from employers refusing to hire overweight workers or terming someone for gaining too much weight. For example, the airlines not hiring someone over a certain weight requirement. The question becomes, where do you cross the line between protecting your business, your employees or the general population and where does it cross the line into discrimination?
The simple answer is – a policy that is put in place to protect or ensure the safety of employees and patrons is likely not going to be considered discriminatory. If, however, the policy is implemented to reduce the bottom line or improve some aspect of the business only, it could be considered to be discriminatory. Businesses need to take a good look at their policies and why they’re implementing such policies. What is the reason for imposing lifestyle restrictions? Who does the policy benefit? Who does the policy protect?
In the smoking example, is the no smoking policy designed to curtail benefits related costs? Or is it more altruistic that you want people to be healthier and are concerned about the risks of second hand smoke? Those two reasons, while perfectly valid, could be considered lifestyle discrimination. On the other hand, perhaps you’re a healthcare provider or hospital where smoking could pose an increased risk to your patients or the smell of smoke on a person’s clothes may make a patient feel ill.
If we think about the airline not hiring or firing an overweight employee, if their reason is based on the employee’s appearance they’re running a risk of discrimination. If, however, it is because of an overweight flight attendant will have more difficulty getting through the narrow aisles and this could pose a safety risk to passengers in an emergency, then it’s more likely not discrimination.
The bottom line is that when you’re designing policies, you need to think globally about their affect on employees, customers and co-workers. Policies which do more than just affect your bottom line, but also protect the safety and health of co-workers, customers and employees are more likely not to be considered discriminatory.
Have you had any experience with lifestyle discrimination? Tell us your story.
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