Workplace discrimination begins taking unlikely forms

Photo Courtesy of WikiMediaCommons  TECHNOLOGY HAS shaped the way companies hire employees. Tactics such as genetic testing have been used to predict employees’ future health.

Photo Courtesy of WikiMediaCommons
TECHNOLOGY HAS shaped the way companies hire employees. Tactics such as genetic testing have been used to predict employees’ future health.

Michael Bianco
Staff Writer

Discrimination, a word that is weighed down with such negative connotation these days, is viewed as a kiss of death for any company trying to preserve its public image as well as avoid costly legal troubles. While the more obvious kinds of discrimination such as race, gender and age are declining, some lesser-known issues are starting to come to the public’s attention as more and more companies seek to discriminate simply out of their desire to save money.

With the new age of technology has come the opportunity to utilize entirely new areas of science that were unknown only a few decades ago, and businesses quickly found new tests to be useful in avoiding hiring employees with genetic conditions. By screening for genes that could serve as a detriment to the employee’s health in the future, a company can easily infer that such an employee would have increased medical expenses as a result and thus is less desirable as a hire. With the advent of genetic testing, this concept has quickly gathered steam with companies as its benefits have become more apparent. In a government survey conducted in 1982, 1.6 percent of companies responded that they used genetic testing as part of their hiring process. A subsequent survey done in 1997 by the American Management Association indicated that 6-10 percent of employers utilized genetic testing as part of their employment screenings.

Following this information that indicates a greater issue, 22 percent of 1,000 survey respondents at risk for genetic conditions reported that they believe that they experienced some kind of discrimination based on their genetic status. Despite the worrisome indicators, there have been strides to put a cap on this issue. Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), passed Nov. 21, 2009, forbids employers from using genetic information to make employment decisions and restricts attempts to acquire the information. Additionally, the Labor Department, Department of Health and Human Services and the Treasury Department have the responsibility of creating and maintaining regulations for Title I of GINA, which deals with the use of genetic information in terms of health insurance.

While the recent government activity seems promising in deterring this employment practice, there still are more issues to be addressed before this slippery slope ends with a screeching halt. There are other genes that are not necessarily precursors for diseases and conditions that could also raise red flags for observant employers, such as the MAOA gene that has been linked to aggression and might indicate more “risky behavior,” a phrase that is unappealing to any insurance provider. Smoking, a lifestyle choice that serves as a detriment to one’s health, has also been put in the crosshairs of employers. While there are a few laws in place throughout the United States to keep employers from discriminating against smokers, some have decided to include smoking among “undesirable” traits to avoid in applicants.

The ethical perspectives of such an issue are understandably ambiguous, as the businesses are motivated simply to save money by not investing in employees that stand to be costly.

The employees themselves could argue that their rights are being violated because of something out of their control due to genetics or, in the case of smoking, their own lifestyle choices. While no immediate solution has materialized yet that can satisfy both sides of the issue, hopefully one can be reached in the near future to clear up this difficult issue.

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