How much can where I work affect where I can work in future?
January 13, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I have an opportunity to take a job at a tobacco company. Will having experience at such a company put off future employers?

So I live in the UK and have the possibility of getting a job at a tobacco company. This would be a data based job, not directly involved in sales or marketing. Assuming I decided that the benefits and pay were enough to overcome by personal qualms with working at such a place, what do you think future employers would think? Especially if I wanted to move back into academia, do you think people might be put off by experience working in such a company?

I'd like to hear from people who have experience of vetting individuals for jobs in particular.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total)
I have no experience in the tobacco industry, but here in the US, in the software industry, we see people who've come from backgrounds at, for instance Lockheed-Martin or other defense contractors who did things like design guidance systems for missiles and nobody bats an eye at it.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:54 AM on January 13, 2014

I have a friend who has worked at Altria for nearly 30 years. I have another friend who worked at Haliburton. I worked at MCI WorldCom (accounting scandal!) We've all be able to secure employment after our employement at the 'questionable' company ended.

Most employers are looking for people who are good at their jobs. Where you work doen't often factor into it. So if the work sounds interesting, accept the position.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:01 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've worked at MCI-WorldCom and a big defense contractor and it's never come up. I think of those years as positive experiences and chalk them up to intellectual curiosity -- it's valuable to have insight into a company that's broken or has potential PR issues because you know firsthand what works and often what doesn't.
posted by mochapickle at 10:10 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

As far as most people are concerned, tobacco companies still rely on a standard set of HR policies and function much like any other workplace. I can see some of my colleagues in the technology field doing a bit of a double-take if a job candidate has previous experience working at, say, PornHub, where the candidate may be used to a vastly different office culture.

Unless your job placement depends on the support of a powerful person with strong opinions about the tobacco industry (to the point where they feel comfortable blaming individual employees for the existence of their employer), you'll probably be fine.
posted by theraflu at 10:10 AM on January 13, 2014

UK person here. Background: 15+ years in market research/data and consulting.

I can't speak for academia, but I've hired ex-tobacco people in the past and it never crossed my mind that there would be an ethical issue.

What we did find in my last firm, however, is that tobacco companies were desperate to work with us - lots of large service companies don't really want tobacco money. But that is very different to not hiring individuals who've just worked for tobacco companies: the former is a corporate reputation issue. The latter generally isn't.

I can't tell exactly what you mean by not directly involved in sales or marketing. In case you mean that you're a number cruncher with sales/marketing as an internal client then what you might find is that the workflows are different to a normal FMCG company because of the restrictions in how you find, market to, and retain your customers. In some aspects this might be positive - tobacco companies have to be pretty good at marketing through below the line channels, and increasingly they have to be pretty innovative about establishing their brand positively among future consumers. As a result, they need to be clever and innovative about how they mine and use their sales and marketing data too.

In some aspects it will be negative - because how cigarettes are marketed and retailed is now so different from, say, laundry powder, that future employers might not want someone with a restricted experience set when it comes to marketing and, to a lesser extent, marketing data.

If you're working with something almost entirely unrelated - finance, logistics, IT etc then I can't see it being an issue art all.

Two other things to note:

Tobacco companies used to be full of smokers and in the big firms there was no issue with smoking in the workplace. Now they can't do so legally. But if you don't smoke put non-smoker on your CV. There definitely are a minority of people who don't like hiring smokers and there will be people whose experience of the business is a bit outdated who might assume you are a smoker.

If you have aspirations of being a CEO or blue chip senior management I wouldn't stay long in a tobacco firm. At very senior level, reputations and PR matter. In 20 or so years' time the City probably will prefer board level execs that haven't worked in tobacco. Tobacco usage is still growing globally, so while the UK picture is more of a managed decline in less regulated markets it is fundamentally about consumer recruitment. In that respect, tobacco is a pretty cynical business. It's legal, but it will be a large ethical turd in the future. Board level headhunting is a fickle business and blue chip firms will shy away from candidates who have skeletons in the closet.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:20 AM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'd say it would depend on how much competition there will be for your future job(s). Because tobacco use is more personal than, say, missiles, working with this product could have a more subtle effect on how you're perceived. There's a significant ethical aspect, of course, but there are other non-ethical aspects.

If you're desperate, then that would affect your story of course, if you get a chance to tell it.
posted by amtho at 10:58 AM on January 13, 2014

It would have disqualified an application at my former (extremely high profile, hard to get into, progressive) company. If you're not thinking about relocating to California, though, then anything I say is pretty irrelevant.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:44 PM on January 13, 2014

Very interesting question. I think you'd face two forms of risk in taking the job.

1) You would probably have a hard time getting work in anything related to healthcare in future, and you might have a hard time getting a job in anything with a public service component (government, nonprofit, maybe academia). I say this because as a hiring manager, everywhere I've worked has some companies or industries it doesn't want to hire from for ideological reasons, and I assume for health related orgs that'd include tobacco companies. Doesn't mean it'd be impossible, but it could be a significant demerit, and in a tight competition it could do you in. I can tell you that in my field (which has nothing to do with health) it would raise an eyebrow, but wouldn't disqualify you.

2) Possibly more importantly, I think it would be a dealbreaker for some individual hiring managers. The person making the hire has a lot of discretion and if smoking is a big deal to them personally (like, if a family member died of lung cancer or a close friend smokes and they don't like it), I could absolutely see that knocking you out of competition. And worse, that would be unpredictable and not visible to you.

I'd skip it unless you think the upside of the job outweighs both those risks. I'm not speaking from an ethics perspective, just a practical one.
posted by Susan PG at 4:22 PM on January 13, 2014

My boss right now actually worked for Altria lobbying in Mexico, and we're a very progressive company (though not that high profile or hard to get into). Two things were important: He's able to talk about why he took the job and what he did there in a way that makes it clear that he understands the ethics involved and that being able to effectively navigate those ethical issues made him more effective for us, not less. (He was lobbying for tighter controls against counterfeit cigs.)

So, if you can articulate that you understand why folks might look askance at tobacco but your job, specifically, wasn't doing anything unethical (or was even arguably proactively ethical), and what you learned from the experience, it's not going to hold you back in most places I have experience with.
posted by klangklangston at 5:18 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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