NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Are companies getting more intrusive in dictating private behaviors?
Consider some recent events:
- Weyco Inc., an employee benefits company, recently fired four workers because they refused to quit smoking -- during their off hours.
- The Borgata, a hotel and casino in Atlantic City, has threatened to let cocktail waitresses go if they let themselves go. Gaining 10 percent over their baseline body weight is grounds for dimissal.
- Google fired a worker for chronicling daily life at the search-engine in a little too much detail.
- Boeing CEO, Harry Stonecipher, was fired last week for having consensual sex with another company executive. (See Boeing CEO out in sex scandal.)
It's a brave new world in the workplace. Technology and changing culture have combined to create new ways to put your job in jeopardy.
The boss can even look over your shoulder when you're on your own time.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
Smoking is an area where many employers might someday consider a crackdown. With health insurance costs soaring, companies can make a fiscal-responsibility case to justify smoking prohibitions.
"No other company has gone as far as Weyco," says John Challenger, of the outplacement consulting firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "But companies are caught between a rock and a hard place in regard to health care costs. More and more CEOs are looking hard at it."
A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which counts nearly 200,000 human resource professionals in its ranks, examined company smoking policies, and suggested employers are still quite tolerant.
More than 72 percent of the HR pros surveyed said that their companies have designated smoking areas, for example. A mere 19 percent ban workplace smoking, and none of the surveyed firms have formal policies against hiring smokers.
A small number of employers, about 5 percent, do draw the line by charging smokers higher health-care insurance premiums.
"It's hard to blame an employer for not wanting to absorb higher medical insurance costs," says Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates for rights in the workplace. "Why should I pay for your bad habit?"
Smoking is not the only lifestyle choice that can affect your health and your employer's health care costs. "Should I have to pay higher insurance costs because you go skiing or eat at McDonalds or practice unsafe sex?" Maltby asks.
Policing anti-smoking and other lifestyle policies means conducting urine or blood analysis tests, mandating healthy cholesterol levels, and prohibiting dangerous sports and activities.
"There's no way to draw the line," says Peter Handal, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training. "If you say you can't smoke and you use blood tests to police it, you could also test for genes that cause cancer."
Employers don't necessarily need sophisticated tests to figure out when when one of their workers is becoming dangerously overweight.
As far as the Borgata cocktail waitresses are concerned, health care costs do not factor in. The young women look, well, remarkably fit. The issue there is beauty, not insurance premiums.
But Challenger says that companies in other industries could start looking at employee obesity, which also leads to higher health care spending.
Employees may not realize just how vulnerable they are to termination. If the reason for losing your job seems unfair, many people's reasoning seems to go, it must be illegal.
Employment in most states, however, is "at will." That means that your employer has the right (outside of a few protectected categories such as age, race, and religion) to fire you at any time for any reason -- or for no reason at all.
Even political differences can lead to termination. Just ask Lynne Gobelle of Moulton, Georgia, fired for displaying a John Kerry bumper sticker.
Her boss, Phil Geddes, made no bones of his fealty to President Bush. He even included a pro-Bush flyer in employees' pay envelopes. Gobelle explored her options to fight her dismissal and found she had none.
"Do not think you're protected by the First Amendment," says Maltby. "It doesn't apply to private employment." He says only five states have rules protecting against political firings.
Even successful CEOs, like Boeing's Stonecipher, can fall from grace in ways unheard in the past.
"What helped sink him was that he went around preaching no tolerance" for violations of company ethics, according to Handal. "He lived by the sword and he died by the sword."
Handal advises employees to remember three things:
- Understand your company's policies and standards as best you can. What you regard as innocent blogging, the company may consider destructive griping.
- Think before you act. Will your actions make it more difficult to be a part of the team? And remember that emails are virtually indestructible.
- If it's illegal, don't do it. This advice may seem obvious, but workers disregard it all the time.
Perhaps the best advice for people who want to keep their jobs comes straight from prizefighting: Protect yourself at all times.
(To see more on how some bloggers lost their jobs click here.)