Soundview Executive Book Summaries

Walking a Tightrope in HR

If you look closely at many of my posts, you’ll notice that I rarely give out any personal details. Truth be told, I’m quite a private person, despite the fact that I communicate with all of you a few times each week. I sometimes feel as though the continued dominance of social media in our lives has led people to willingly give  up their privacy with nary a second thought.

Strangely, some of the same folks who don’t mind posting photos from a company happy hour on their Facebook pages are likely to bristle at corporate requests for info for a health and wellness survey. They may not have a choice in the near future. This article from discusses the increase in Human Resource departments asking employees to fill out a health and wellness questionnaire prior to enrolling in the company’s health insurance program.

I found this article to be loaded with the type of issues that define life in today’s corporate world. The survey can ask an employee about the number of alcoholic drinks he or she consumes each week. However, it can’t ask the same employee whether or not there is a history of cancer in his or her family. This is due to a fear of lawsuits due to genetic discrimination. To help ensure employee cooperation, some companies are offering incentives such as lower insurance premiums for workers willing to participate in smoking cessation programs. Yet, companies are at risk if they bar employees coverage for not agreeing to fill out the survey.

However, I think my favorite quote from the article is this one: “Maybe you think you’ll fudge the truth? Don’t. That’s fraud, and could be grounds for dismissal.” I can almost guarantee that some people reading that statement would reply, “How will they ever know?” I suspect that these are the same folks that would thrill us with a Twitter tweet about low cigarette prices at a local gas station.

Human Resource professionals are in a bind that I, for one, do not envy. As they continue to walk a tightrope between lowering their health care expenses and breaching privacy issues, one has to wonder whether it will be employee or employer who has to make the biggest changes.

For a great read on the difficulties facing HR departments (and how to solve them), check out our summary of The HR Scorecard by Brian Becker, Mark Huselid and Dave Ulrich.


15 Comments so far
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why can’t the employer discriminate against you for having cancer? that’s not a protected group and has no legal status. I don’t agree with that practice seems unethical, but I was not aware of any reason they can not do this.

Comment by Michael

Just to clarify, the article itself doesn’t specify any particular illness. I think the impression is that companies are looking at understanding employee behavior patterns as a means of encouraging increased wellness. The motivations for having healthier workers (saving on insurance deductibles, a decrease in lost time due to illness, etc) are unique to each company.

Whether or not a company can refuse health care to someone with a preexisting condition is something a legal consultant would be able to answer.

Comment by soundviewsummary

Odd isn’t it, the urge to blog. we clearly feel the need to divulge parts of ourselves and yet also want to retain other details in order to keep a sense of privacy. 21st century life!

Comment by Steven Harris

Many business book titles today address the ethical and legal debates over employees’ personal Web content and its impact on a business. People should learn to equate posting something online with spray painting the same message on their front door. Would they be willing to let any passerby take a look?

Comment by soundviewsummary

In the employer-employee relationship you’ll never guess who has the most power. Har. There is absolutely no reason for a company to ask these sorts of questions of their employees. Are the worried about their group health insurance? What are they going to do? Fire the guy who has a dozen alcoholic beverages every week?

Not only is there no point to it, but it also violates the rights of employees. Companies already run your credit report. Bad scores can get you fired or keep you from being hired. Companies can already tell you what you can do in your personal time. Now they want to know private information about your personal life.

Will HIPPA laws apply to your HR profile? Will there be doctor/patient confidentiality? Who will have access to your responses?

What a can of worms and what an injustice to the worker, whatever reason the company might think they have.

Comment by shoutabyss

I think everyone is curious to see in what direction this issue heads. I personally would like to hear from a legal expert about the difference between this type of questionnaire and the type used by life insurance companies for underwriting.

A legal expert would also be able to clarify your questions about HIPPA and confidentiality.

Comment by soundviewsummary


Comment by s8529226

At every turn, mostly that is, its a game of oneupmanship between the corporate and individual. Right from an offer where one is jockeying for a better pay/perks/position and the organisation trying to tell you why you arent good enough for it yet; then the interdepartmental politics; turf-wars; rat race; water cooler gossip sessions; oh life is never dull for a moment within the four walls of the office 🙂
So why should it be any different with the health benefits?

Arun Vemuri
(Scatterbrained Scribblings)

Comment by ivak99

I agree with you that it is kind of funny that someone will gladly share tons of private information on the internet through social networking platforms, but put up a wall as soon as it is in the form of a questionnaire in the real world.

Comment by triciajune

One of our top exports in the United States is “celebrity.” The allure of fame combined with the universality of the Web has given the average person the chance to become a “micro-celebrity” or at the very least a “micro-critic.” Don Tapscott offers an interesting view of this as it applies to younger workers in his book “Grown Up Digital” which we reviewed in our free online newsletter Soundview Executive Book Alert.

Comment by soundviewsummary

You are correct in advising the public not to ‘fudge’ on a Corporate Health Interview Application. I just posted a blog about how Facebook is the New Peeping Tom! Employers ‘do look’ and Google current and potential employees to see if they match their corporate persona. The Company can easily find out about ‘pre-existing’ conditions when the employee goes for a visit to their primary care physician and the ‘new insurance/health coverage’ pays for the visit. In some cases (depending on where you live), you may switch jobs, but end up with the exact same insurance company covering you and your family that you had with your previous employer.
It is a very thin line HR Departments are walking (but required by Corporate Rules). It is even a thinner line when the public ‘gives up private information’ on seemingly innocent social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Be careful out there people – Big Brother is Watching and Knows Your every Move!

Comment by satansez

I think you described it perfectly when you wrote “seemingly innocent.” The trouble for many individuals is a lack of understanding when it comes to the permanence and public nature of online content. As other readers have commented, a person can’t expect to publicly display personal information and still retain control over who reads it.

Comment by soundviewsummary

Great information, thank you.

Comment by theprettyproject

It is an issue of privacy when employess are asked about their medical history and there would be tendencies to screen out those whom the employers think would be a hindrance (poor health) to the company’s performance. However, I think what the employers should see is the performance of the employees first. If their health really is significantly affecting them, there would be grounds for maybe deducting the salary so that the health benefits would be compensated for.

Comment by geminifive

Employers are in an unenviable position in many of these cases. Instead of dismissing this as a “big business” tactic, I prefer to think of the small business owner who is struggling to stay afloat. I can’t necessarily blame this person for taking every opportunity (within the law, of course) to help keep his or her costs under control. With the incredible volume of employment-related lawsuits that choke the court system, it’s hard to believe employers are rushing to enter a minefield of privacy issues, as you correctly point out.

Comment by soundviewsummary

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