New ways to get fired
The list of offenses for which you could lose your job seems to be swelling.
March 15, 2005: 1:07 PM EST
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer


Are companies getting more intrusive in dictating private behaviors?


Consider some recent events:

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.

Politically incorrect

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:

Perhaps the best advice for people who want to keep their jobs comes straight from prizefighting: Protect yourself at all times.