I’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:
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?
Following is my reply:
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:
- 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.
- Do you smoke?
- 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!
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?