Smoking (and lying about it) could cost you your job

Yesterday it was reported that Whirlpool Corp. suspended 39 employees for lying about tobacco use. The employees had signed paperwork indicating that they did not use tobacco, but they were seen smoking or chewing tobacco on company property.

The company's stance is simple: They have employees fill out paperwork that asks them about tobacco use. The paperwork says that they could be suspended or terminated if they lie. Whirlpool then uses the paper to charge tobacco users an extra $500 per year toward their health insurance premiums.

Personally, I don't care if people smoke or not. But I do care if they lie to their employer about it. The simple fact is that health insurance premiums are higher for tobacco users. The reasons are obvious: They cost insurance companies more. I think that employer should have every right to recover part or all of that additional premium based upon the smoking factor.
Now of course, this raises the issue of what employees should be held responsible for in regard to their health. Sicker people mean higher insurance premiums, so where do we draw the line? Who pays for the higher cost of medical conditions that are not the sick person's fault? I'm not quite sure. But I do know that for many years, employees were spoiled.

They had the benefit of health insurance policies that required them to pay very little out of their own pockets for their health care. There was little incentive to be responsible with health care, and it cost companies a lot of money. (What is "responsible" health care, you ask? Things like eating and living well to prevent illness, visiting a doctor for preventive health care measures and choosing to visit a doctor during office hours rather than running to an emergency room on the weekend.)

Health insurance premiums are costing companies far more money than many employees realize. Companies must move toward more consumer-driven health care options which force employees to be as responsible as possible with their health care choices. And forcing tobacco users to pay more for their more expensive insurance policies is right in line with giving employees incentives to live healthier lives.

I think the Whirlpool employees who were caught lying on their paperwork should have two choices. They can be fired. Or they can reimburse their employer for the full cost of their health insurance premiums since the day they lied, and be responsible for paying the full cost of their health insurance premiums going forward. Forcing dishonest employees to bear the burden of their own health insurance costs would certainly send a message, wouldn't it?

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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