Social engineering or a healthcare perk?

Recent scientific breakthroughs in genetics have stirred great ethical debates.
Now the Recruitment Society reports a quarter of employers have discussed using
genetic testing. Could they be opening a can of worms if, as some predict, such
tests could be commomplace in the employment market within a few years?

Steve Huxham
Chair of the Recruitment Society’s sub-committee on genetics and
director of search and selection consultancy HUX Executive Recruitment

The most revealing thing about our research was how little debate there has
been on this subject and how unaware employers are of the timescale involved.
You can’t pick up a newspaper one week to the next without reading about some
new development in genetics. This is an issue for employers as it is not
unrealistic to see that the availability of such tests will be cheap and widespread
within five years. And since most large corporate firms plan their graduate
intake at least three years ahead it is definitely something to consider.

Although the Government is generally taking a sit-on-the-fence approach to
the whole issue it has already given approval for insurers to ask people if
they have been tested for Huntington’s Chorea.

You could present a good case for genetic testing if you are a caring
employer. You could make it part of the health benefits package an employee
receives when they join the company, with the premise that it will enable the
company to offer appropriate help should anything be revealed. I am no medical
expert but I know that early diagnosis is important and increases the chances
of successful treatment. However, it is the non-medical tests that are

We have to accept that there is a genetic component to areas such as
intelligence or their propensity to stress. But can you make a moral argument
for allowing performing a swab test to find out?

If an unscrupulous employer looking only at the bottom line could swab to
avoid the risk of employing the next Nick Leeson then they would, wouldn’t they?

Mark Brewer
Director of recruitment consultants Frazer Jones

From a personal point of view I wouldn’t dream of using it. It would be the
same as judging a person on the basis of their ethnic background or gender.
Whether someone is going to get ill or not is not a good enough reason not to
hire them. I certainly wouldn’t consider using such information to hire people.
As for recruiting for clients, I would feel very uncomfortable about using such
information. Genetic testing smacks of genetic engineering and that’s a
horrendous idea. Imagine you’re faced with deciding whether to hire a 33-year
old woman whose mother died of breast cancer at 35 – what an appalling decision
to have to make.

Sue Nickson
Partner and national head of employment law at Hammond Suddards Edge

Genetic testing could be seen as a breach of an employee’s right under the
Human Rights Act, and could not be forced upon an existing employee. It would
be contentious on a number of grounds including the possibility that it could
allow employers using such a test as part of a selection process to avoid the
potential for Disability Discrimination Act claims. The Act only extends to a
disabled person suffering from an "impairment". A prognosis that a
person is likely to develop that impairment in the future would probably not be
caught by the present legislation. There would clearly be issues as to whether
this practice was ethical irrespective of its legality.

Angela Baron
Adviser in employee relations, CIPD

What really worries me is what an employer would do with this sort of
information. Unless we are talking about a hazardous industry and there is
conclusive medical evidence that someone with a particular disease would be in
danger then I cannot see a reason why an employer should have access to that
sort of information on an employee. I can understand the interest that American
employers have in it. They are incredibly interested because most have to pay
employee health insurance and they want to keep their insurance bills down. But
this is not an issue in the UK. And it is a false premise to believe that it
would help cut the costs of time off work or permanent sickness.

Martin Chitty
Partner, Wragge & Co

Employers are going to have an uphill struggle if they pursue genetic
testing. Apart from public antipathy the big issues are going to be
justification, privacy, disability discrimination and data protection. How many
conditions, which are not otherwise apparent, can be diagnosed in this way?
Some conditions may not present clinical symptoms for 20 years – so what
justification is there? The Human Rights and Data Protection Acts are going to
limit employers in this area. The test necessarily invades privacy, requires
consent and will produce a "data processing" event. The Data Protection
Registrar has already published guidance on the point.

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