About 100 years ago, Ford Motor Company had a “sociological department” of investigators who monitored Ford workers’ off-duty conduct to ensure those employees didn’t drink too much, kept their homes clean and “properly” spent their leisure time.
About two weeks ago, an employer in San Francisco announced a new policy prohibiting the use of all tobacco products on its property by employees, even while on break and even while in their personal cars. With the new rule comes the introduction of a team of “tobacco-free ambassadors” to advise workers of the prohibition. It’s not the first employer to implement a tobacco-free policy, and probably not the last.
The new policy, like the old one at the turn of the last century, is apt to reignite a debate over workers’ right to privacy and the freedom to do what they want in their free time. Unquestionably, the goal of tobacco free-policies in the workplace is noble. Thousands die of smoking-related illnesses every year, cigarette butts litter smoking areas, and most find that smoke just plain smells bad. Even more important, the workplace at issue here is effectively a hospital environment with numerous medical patients. In announcing its new policy, the hospital itself acknowledges that nicotine forms an addiction as bitterly painful as any to break. (To its substantial credit, UCSF will provide free nicotine replacement gum to help with cravings).
Employer regulation of off-duty conduct has led to numerous laws across the country. In California, for example, Labor Code section 98.6 prohibits terminating or in any way discriminating against an employee because he or she engaged in “lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.” Whether smoking in one’s car during a lunch break qualifies as protected off-duty conduct remains to be seen. Either way, those taking part in the inevitable debate over this issue should be mindful of the important interests on both sides. Successfully striking a balance between employee freedoms and patient/coworker rights to a smoke-free environment is going to be as difficult as going cold turkey ever was.