Ethics at Work: Genetic testing in the workplace

One of the most contested areas of business ethics is the conflict between worker privacy and workplace testing.

One of the most contested areas of business ethics is the conflict between worker privacy and workplace testing. This conflict was played out a generation ago in the field of drug and alcohol testing. Then the question was, to what extent do employers have the right to require employees to undergo urine or blood tests to detect the use of illegal drugs? The short answer is that they can if they have a very good reason and fair procedures for dealing with employees who test positive, but they can't just randomly check workers for drug use and then start disciplining or firing them. The newest battlefield is genetic testing. IBM announced this week an official company-wide policy to refrain from genetic testing of workers. Let's examine the pros and cons of this policy. Today a large number of disorders are known to have a genetic component. This component is typically demonstrated statistically by having correlation which is linked to degree of blood relation. For instance, if a disorder is more common among siblings even if they are raised apart, or if it is correlated among identical twins more than among fraternal twins, this is strong evidence that the connection is genetic rather than due to environment. (In the first case, siblings raised apart, the environment is not correlated; in the second case, it is no more correlated for identical twins than for fraternal ones.) Employers are interested in this information for two main reasons: improving hiring and promotion decisions, and protection against liability. Tests could improve hiring decisions by revealing disorders that might impact suitability for a particular post. For example, someone with a high probability of a career-shortening disorder may seem like a poor candidate to place on the fast track. They can protect against liability by revealing unusual susceptibility to workplace hazards. For example, if a small number of individuals have a genetic tendency to get sick from a certain toxin in the workplace, then screening these individuals can protect the employer from a lawsuit. Employees are worried about the tests for a number of reasons as well. One reason is that they feel that their privacy is being violated; it is well accepted in the modern workplace that workers are not required to reveal all aspects of their personal life that the employer might be interested in; for example, interviewers are not allowed to ask prospective hires about family plans or reasonably accommodated religious restrictions. Another reason is that they feel that even if there is a correlation with work performance this could possibly be seen as a kind of discrimination. Usually employers are allowed to discriminate among candidates based on their ability to do the job; after all, that's what the hiring process is all about! But the concern is that minor genetic concerns could result in whole groups of people being shut out of whole areas of the workforce rather than finding appropriate solutions to the supposed genetic disability. In my opinion, the main reason to severely limit genetic testing now is scientific. For many disorders a genetic link is plausible or probable, but not conclusively demonstrated. For innumerable others, the existence of a genetic link is highly convincing but the ability of a particular test to detect it is dubious. And even if a good test exists there are today no adequate controls to ensure that the private labs which do the testing are actually using a state-of-the-art test. And even if they are, no one is making sure the employer is interpreting them in a scientific manner fair to the employee. In a few years, when the science and the regulatory environment improve and we can see if commercial labs can consistently pinpoint significant workplace risks, I'll have to go back to this question and discuss the fundamental ethical questions, pro and con. In the meantime, I feel that IBM, a company of scientists, has made the right call in eschewing genetic testing based on the current state of applied science. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.