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Front Page » March 11, 2003 » Opinion » What should employers know about your business?
Published 4,245 days ago

What should employers know about your business?


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By RICHARD SHAW
Staff reporter

Recent developments in the workplace as well as in the health insurance and "wellness" industries have disturbed me greatly. I am becoming more and more concerned about what people are giving up in terms of their privacy.

In these times of tighter security and a seemingly looming war it is hard to see some of the privacy we have always enjoyed going down the drain.

But what is making it worse is that employers and privacy issues related to employment are changing, particularly when it comes to health issues and insurance.

I have perceived this problem coming for a long time. It began, for me in 1976 when while riding my dirt bike in Skull Valley (two Great Basin depressions west of the Salt Lake Valley) at a place called Iosepa. I hit a rut the wrong way, was thrown off the bike and landed on my head.

As hard as my noggin is, it was a good thing I was wearing a helmet. But while that hard protective device kept my head from being broken open like a watermelon at a picnic on the Fourth of July, it's edge came down and broke my left collar bone in two places. I immediately arose from the fall and stood up telling my co-riders I was all right.

"No you're not," said one who pointed to my shoulder. I looked down and there was something sticking out of my upper torso about 5 inches. I immediately fell on the ground with a nauseated feeling.

After a quick trip to the hospital in the back of my friends Volkswagon bus, I was given a "brace" and a sling and told I couldn't use the arm for six weeks. I called my boss the next day and told him the situation. He said it would be okay and for me to just take care of myself.

At the time I worked for a large organization that had many branches. Since I had an extremely physical job, performing my duties would have been almost impossible under the conditions. A substitute was put in place and I had plenty of sick leave so I wasn't concerned.

However the next week, someone from personnel called me and told me they needed to see me. When I went to the main office, they started to ask me all kinds of questions about my personal life. Questions like if I drank or smoked, if I participated in any "other" dangerous sports (obviously they knew about the motorcycles by now), and if I worked at a part time or another full time job.

The person who asked these questions was called a "liability specialist" and she was quite pleasant. I answered the questions honestly, and being young and dumb and always talkative ( I have always said too much in all the wrong places) I didn't understand what was going on.

A few days later I got a call from my employers insurance company and spoke to a man called a "risk assessor." He told me that they would cover my injury, but that now that I had declared that I did participate in dangerous sports, they would evaluate any further claims I had to decide whether the injury was self inflicted or not. He had a number of choice words for me about motorcycle riders and their injuries. I was just kind of shocked. It wasn't like I had landed on my head intentionally.

The more I thought about it the madder I got. So I called my supervisor, and he was kind of evasive about the whole thing. Finally he said, "If I had known you were a bike rider I would never have hired you."

Now I am not and never have been the perfect employee. I have had my faults, but I had also worked for that organization for four years at the time, and had been loyal as well as cooperative. In addition I had showed up for work many days when I was really sick and should have stayed home because from the time I was a child my parents taught me that that is how you are supposed to treat a job.

It was the first time in my life I had ever really felt my job threatened by what I did in my personal life. My relationship with that supervisor was never the same, because of what he said and within two years I had moved on. But that whole situation has affected my work life ever since.

I realize that my actions cost the company money, but on the other hand where does the right of the company to regulate your personal life come into play?

Those thoughts have returned as I have seen various things in workplaces over the years. Later, as a supervisor myself I heard others in similar positions say how they had not hired people, even though qualified, because they were involved in various sports or activities. And I have certainly seen people who will not hire someone because they didn't have the proper "lifestyle" for the job.

I don't dispute that employers have a right to protect themselves, and there are times in this country when individual rights activists have gone too far. But over the years I have seen increasing trends toward employers trying to regulate employees personal lives more and more.

In some cases potential employers can find out more about a person than their families know: information about their credit rating, their particular health problems, who they associate with and their personal habits are all easily available. Some companies use this information in regard to hiring as well as promotion from within.

This was all highlighted by an article in the Salt Lake Tribune on March 7. Now some employers, under the pressure of soaring health insurance rates, are becoming more and more curious about people's personal lives. Some of the questions they ask are old ones: For instance, do you drink or smoke? Others are new such as queries about what you eat, what your weight is or whether you have high cholesterol.

In some cases companies are offering not only wellness courses, but are also giving bonuses to people who are fit or keep their cholesterol levels at lower rates.

I understand this to a certain extent, but, being the paranoid that I am, I worry about the darker side of this trend. Right now most questionnaires are voluntary and wellness programs are too.

But that could change, especially with the conservative, pro-business congress and state legislatures that exist all over the nation today and look to exist in the future as well.

As individuals we have lost rights over this whole terrorism issue. I am concerned about where all this denigrating or individual freedom is heading. The lines on some things that an employer can do are clear, but on many they are not.

Employers should be able to protect themselves from hiring or employing those that are involved in illegal drugs or those that abuse alcohol, but when it comes to a persons private life, and what he or she does on their own time, in their own way, with their own money, that should only be one persons business, and not a employers.


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March 11, 2003
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