QUESTION: We have a new employee who smokes. When she comes to work she smells like cigarettes, particularly her breath. What can we say to her?
ANSWER: While you won’t be able to stop the employee from smoking, and you can’t use the act of smoking as a basis for termination because it is a legal activity, you can certainly control how that habit affects your practice. To start, you should have two policies in place that address this issue. The first policy is typically part of an appearance policy. Among other appearance standards this states that employees who choose to smoke must ensure that their breath, clothes, hair, etc., never smell like smoke. Patient care requires all employees to be free of unpleasant odors, and failure to adhere to this standard can result in disciplinary action, which might include termination.
The other policy is a specific smoking policy that puts prohibitions on smoking inside the building and during work hours. You may even put restrictions on where an employee can smoke outside of the building (i.e., have a designated area for smoking). While you won’t be able to stop employees from smoking during their off time—breaks, lunches, and before or after work—you can certainly limit smoking while they’re on your property and on your time.
Once these policies are established, any breach of a policy would be handled just like any other issue you might have with your employees. In other words, address the problem through counseling, disciplinary measures, or possible termination. When you address the problem with the person, and when you write the policy, be sure to keep the issue job-related. It should never be about your approval or disapproval of smoking. It should be about how patient care requires all employees to look professional. This includes not having any offensive odors, whether that’s garlic after eating a meal, cigarette, or other odors.
If you don’t have these policies in place, I encourage you to make the change as soon as possible. That way you have a basis for holding employees accountable for their actions. However, regardless of whether or not you currently have the policies in place, you can still address the problem with this employee by informing him or her that this is a problem that must be corrected.