Smokeless Offices without Inflamed Tempers
By Mortimer R. Feinberg and Aaron Levenstein
After New York Mayor Ed Koch issued regulations limiting smoking in public buildings, he said he would seek curbs on smoking in nonpublic offices too. But even in the absence of specific legislation, mounting esthetic objections to smoking to the office have forced companies to consider sweeping changes in policies.
Tort law may result in damage suite against employers who compel employees to work ta a toxic atmosphere created by colleagues who smoke. C&P Telephone Co., target of a $110,000 medical-expenses suit, is taking no chances on future lawsuits and has informed its employees that any one person may effectively call for a smoking ban in his work unit.
This issue is serious business-and business had better take it seriously. Proprietors of public places such as restaurants have already been required in many communities to provide segregated areas for smokers or to install ventilation systems that will keep the fumes away from nonsmokers. Such costs, however, are relatively small. A much more difficult and potentially more explosive problem is the in ternecine warfare that may break out, or be stepped up, among employees. Mayor Koch's original draft of his proposed ordinance, without defining terms, said that "any employee in a place of employment shall have the right to designate his or her work area as a nonsmoking area."
For most employers, the key problem is the potential resistance from addicted smokers. To be sure there are always prin cipled objections like that of a New York Chamber of Commerce spokesman who says: "We oppose government intervention in the workplace." But 1986 does seem rather late to raise that issue.
Some executives anticipate conflict among employees, union opposition led by cigar-chomping officials, and loss of production as workers sneak off to a smoking area. It is not unreasonable to expect that some executives will slip out of meetings more frequently if the smoke-filled conference room exists only in nostalgia.
We conducted a mini-survey on smoking in the office among executives in various industries, and received 159 responses. While not a basis for projecting national trends, the responses indicate manag ment is confident that-except for minor disruption-it can handle the smoking problem with or without legislation.
About 80% of our respondents say that a smoking ban in their facility would have "no effect" or a mere "temporary effect" on job performance. A substantial minority - 12% - even accepts the notion that smoking bans, far from interfering with production, may even advance company interests. That coincides with the view of Joseph Califano Jr., chairman of Chrysler Corp.'s employee health care committee and former secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration, who cites this example:
"A program at Johnson & Johnson encouraging employees to quit smoking, and to eat and exercise properly, has slashed absenteeism by 20% and hospitalizations by 30%, recapturing three times the cost of the company's effort."
Some 58% of our respondents stated they had clearly designated no-smoking areas. But a sudden, complete ban on smoking at the work site could raise problems: indeed, one-third of our respondents do expect "substantial resistance" from smokers, but about half thought there would be only "moderate objection."
For the most part, however, our survey indicates that most managements that dealt with the problem have changed to a nonsmoking workplace without too much difficulty. Their comments are reflected in these guidelines:
The fact is that some people actually do perform better when they can use a cigarette as a psychological crutch. Such peo ple may be particularly important in your operations, and you don't want to throw them off stride. In conferences with smokers who are hit hard by the new rules, emphasize that you can't make exceptions but you feel they are so valuable that the company is willing to provide professional counseling or Other assistance if the situation becomes too stressful.
Mr. Feinberg is chairman of the New York-based BFS Psychological Associates. Mr. Levenstein was, until his death last week, professor emeritus of management at Baruch College.