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A sure way for your career to go up in smoke...

Smoking: Bad for Your Health, Equally Bad for Your Career

10.03.2016
If you GoogleTM “CEOs who smoke” you get pot smokers before tobacco users. Try to find out which executives smoke cigarettes and you may need the help of a private eye. Smoking is not only ruinously bad for your health; it’s also bad for your career. 

Perception Matters 

On the AMC series Mad Men, ad executive Don Draper and his contemporaries conduct their business through a cloud of constant cigarette smoke and the occasional dram of whisky. As viewers, we are in awe of what we perceive to be a truly toxic environment -- such a workplace is unheard of in our current health- and wellness-promoting workplaces.

The perception of smokers in the workplace has changed dramatically from those days when people could smoke freely at their desks. Now, smokers are perceived as unproductive, undisciplined, and even “dirty.” In fact, there is data to back up the perception that the productivity levels of smokers are noticeably impacted by the frequency of their smoke breaks. A study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University shows these observations -are well-founded. They calculated that companies lose an average of $3,100 per year in lost productivity per employee caused by smoke breaks. For executives in the C-suite, the cost is obviously higher.

There is also some evidence to suggest that smokers earn less than non-smokers. This 2013 article by CNBC, suggests that the reasons smokers earn less are hard to pin down, but perceptions of smokers’ unpleasantness and personality traits like lack of self-control, than to data-backed reasons like unproductivity.

Nothing Works Better Than Cash 

Companies themselves can make an impact on smoking rates among their employees. In a study that examines financial incentive programs for smoking cessation, Dr. Scott D. Halpern, et al, found that offering direct cash incentives was the most effective method in getting employees to quit smoking. This study examined the types of cash based incentives offered by CVS Caremark. Some employees were offered a “deposit commitment plan” that required participants to put their own money at risk, which they were able to recoup if they were successful in quitting smoking. Other participants were given a direct cash incentive to quit smoking. The study found that nearly 16 percent of participants who were offered a direct cash incentive of $800, succeeded in quitting smoking compared to the 10 percent of people offered a deposit plan. 

No Smokers Hired

While some companies offer cash incentives, others have decided to implement stricter non-smoking policies by no longer hiring people who use tobacco. In 2011, health insurance provider Humana decided to no longer hire tobacco users. Humana ensured the integrity of this policy by testing for nicotine during their routine pre-employment drug screen. Humana argued “it makes sense for a company in the health-care field to lead by example.” Since 2011,  an increasing number of employers, primarily hospitals and insurance companies, has followed Humana’s lead and now has similar hiring bans on candidates who are smokers. 

Houston Methodist Hospital System is one such hospital. In implementing its tobacco-free hiring policy, Houston Methodist took it a step further by offering free tobacco cessation programs to applicants who failed their nicotine screening, and invited them to re-apply when they have been smoke-free for 90 days. Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist’s CEO, explained, “Employees work here to take care of patients. We can only do that if we’re leading by example.” For existing employees, annual health screenings included tests for the presence of nicotine; employees who were found to be tobacco-free were given a lower deductible on their insurance coverage, while those who tested positive were offered free tobacco cessation counseling.

A Welcome Change

Not content to just read about the emerging tobacco-free workplace, we conducted an informal poll of some of our C-suite clients, including those from financial services, consulting, energy and manufacturing. We asked “Would you hire a smoker for a C-suite position? Why or why not?” Unsurprisingly, the responses reflected signs of the times. Virtually all of our respondents replied, “does anyone still smoke anymore?” 

Each executive made a different but consistent point. One highly respected public company energy executive said he would be uncomfortable having a smoker in a client- or investor-facing role because of the bad impression it would leave. A financial executive believes that a leader who smokes sets a bad example for the other employees and is not a good representative of a company that seeks to ensure a healthy workforce. And yet another executive commented, “it’s basically a very dirty habit, and smokers in the workplace are always taking breaks and often not around when you need them. Non-smokers get hacked off because the smokers get all these smoke breaks that they don’t get.” A manufacturing executive concurred stating: “When someone comes back from a smoke break, you can smell it in the elevator and on them. It’s a rare non-smoker that isn’t bothered by that.” One former CEO was more balanced saying "the fact a person smoked would not make a difference to me. While I don't approve of smoking, I don't think it would make someone less qualified" and noted she had never hired a smoker as "there are few executives who smoke these days."

Despite all of the above, smoking is of course, a personal choice, but if you’re an executive with higher aspirations, these data and anecdotes may and should give you pause. Enough said. 

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