I don't smoke, but my other personality does...
January 4, 2008 7:09 PM   Subscribe

Today, my employer game a form to fill in regarding my health. On it were the usual questions about diabetes and epilepsy and such. But there were also questions about things like whether I've had/currently have irritable bowel syndrome (WTF?), how much alcohol I drink per week, whether or not I smoke, etc. Looooong question....

They also want to know if I'm currently/have ever been schizophrenic, amongst other things. There are nearly 50 rather probing personal questions. While I can definitely see the logic behind needing to know if I'm diabetic or not, I don't see why they need to know whether I smoke Marlborough lights or Superkings, or how many a day I smoke. I'm actually quite offended that they think they need to know this much about me before they'll employ me. Whether or not I smoke wont impact my work in any way shape or form. it's not like I'm going to light up on the till, or turn up inebriated. So what if I drink 12 cans of Stella on a Friday night? As long as I turn up on time on Saturday morning, fit and able to do the job, I don't see why they need to know.

For the record, I've never smoked, I drink a glass of wine at Christmas and I don't have MPD. But I still think it's rather rude of them to demand this information from me.

I realise that they can quite probably legally ask me these questions. What I want to know is can I legally refuse to answer? I'm not interested in how common it is that an employer will ask these questions. I also don't care whether I have any kind of moral obligation. Is there some statute under UK law that says I don't have to provide this information?

My thoughts on the subject are that if they refuse to take me on at the end of my probationary period because of this refusal, I'm probably better off. But when I see my manager in a weeks time, I want to know if I have a leg to stand on. It might be relevant that I've yet to sign ANY form of contract, though I have been paid twice.

Again, I can see why they need to know if I am diabetic, because if I have hypoglycaemic episode, then they need to know what to do. Loss of hearing? Blood in the urine? Constipation??? Not so much....

It says at the top of the list of questions, "It is the policy of {employer} for applicants to be health screened as part of the selection process. This is to help them comply with their responsibilities under employment, Health & Safety law and the Disability Discrimination Act. To make a false declaration, to withhold information or to provide misleading information can lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal". That is verbatim.

I'm in the UK, and I joined this employer on a 3 month probationary basis back at the end of November. It's a well known high street stationers/bookshop that also sells magazines & newspapers. If you need to know anything else, contact me at bloodynoseyemployer@googlemail.com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Information Commissioner's Office has published an Employment Practices Code which may help answer these questions for you.
posted by grouse at 7:26 PM on January 4, 2008

How much do you want the job? I'd be tempted to check all the boxes plus write side notes like "severe flatulence" and see if they have the balls to say anything about it.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:42 PM on January 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Can you ask your manager? For example, "Hey, this is really personal stuff...never been asked all this by an employer before and it kinda cought me off guard. Can you tell me a little more about why you're asking and how the information will be used?"
posted by quinoa at 7:43 PM on January 4, 2008

That's so weird. I could maybe see optional self-identifying as a way of making a minority status known -- this is how it's done (if at all) in Canada. (Though the only time I can think of having seen such a thing is when applying for a federal government job.) But IBS and cigarette preference? Bizarre.

I'd be concerned about my privacy and I think it's totally within your rights to ask flat-out who has access to the answers and what they're used for. First clarify if this is a mandatory exercise.
posted by loiseau at 9:13 PM on January 4, 2008

Just a point of clarification -- did they really ask you which brand of cigarettes you smoked?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:40 PM on January 4, 2008

It's really quite simple - unless you're signing up to a company health policy (doubtful as you're in the UK), they're just trying to figure out if you're going to be taking lots of sick days. If the questionnaire indicates that you're not particularly healthy, and they have the opportunity to let you go at the end of your probationary period in favour of a similarly qualified person who is perfectly healthy, then they will, without a doubt. If you refuse to provide the information, they won't keep you on, unless it's impossible to find someone else to do the job. It kind of makes sense, since they have to pay you when you're off sick, and once your contract is signed, it is difficult or impossible to fire you for being sick. That doesn't mean it's not a sleazy thing to do and that you shouldn't lie your face off. As far as they know, you shouldn't have any health problems whatsoever and you never even look at cigarettes and your alcohol intake should be limited to a half-pint on your birthday. If you were in the US, or if you ever wanted to get health insurance to supplement the NHS in the UK, letting it be known that you have any risk factors or pre-existing conditions could prevent you from getting coverage you could afford (or any coverage at all). Believe me, insurance companies will look under EVERY rock they can find to get this information, and it could come back to haunt you years in the future.
posted by cilantro at 2:54 AM on January 5, 2008

Ok, remember this is the UK, not the US ;) Discrimination on the grounds of long-term illness and disability is illegal. All these policies are couched in terms of making sure that the employer meets their duties under the law with regards to their employees (i.e. to make the employees working conditions better), I'm pretty certain that letting people go because they might take sick days would count as unfair dismissal here.

Anonymous, if I take your hints correctly, you are working for a large, high-profile, national company, which I would assume has policies that have been through many lawyers and unions. Yeah, I know, always assume the worst, but I'd hope they wouldn't do something stupid that would leave them open to what could be a high-profile, costly court case. Of course, it's been two months and you haven't signed anything, which probably shows my assumptions aren't great!

I'm not an expert, and I don't know the ins and outs of them making you complete this form. But here's what the Health and Safety Executive has to say about alcohol screening which does seem to suggest that they can't ask you to do it unless you've agreed to it in your contract. I couldn't find anything specific about general health screening.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:51 AM on January 5, 2008

I'm pretty certain that letting people go because they might take sick days would count as unfair dismissal here.

In general, with some exceptions, you can't claim unfair dismissal unless you have been employed for a year. And the employer can base the collection of information (among other factors) on consent, which has to be freely given. Now one might argue that the consent is under duress since anonymous won't get the job otherwise, but the ICO says (in the supplementary guidance I linked earlier) that a lack of consent is a valid reason for not giving someone a job. But here there is a question of whether it is a valid reason for not keeping someone in a job. Perhaps you should contact the Citizens Advice Bureau.
posted by grouse at 4:05 AM on January 5, 2008

Of course the employer isn't going to SAY 'Sorry, anon, gotta let you go because you're a sicky sickface''. I doubt that anyone at the company is actively TRYING to attract a lawsuit. If anon's questionnaire shows that he has regular migraines or that (s)he is laid up in bed three days a month with menstrual cramps, they are going to find another reason not to offer a contract at the end of the three-month probationary period. It might be that they are overstaffed, or that it 'just isn't working out'. The whole point of a probationary period is to give the company a chance to get rid of the employee if they don't perfectly suit the company's needs. If there is no company insurance plan involved, the ONLY reason for a questionnaire like this would be to determine whether it would be financially viable to keep this employee on. They may give other reasons, but in the end, it's all about money.
And not to derail, but Helga-woo, I am an American expat living in the UK and I feel I should point out that it is equally illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in the US. The Americans with Disabilities Act is an amazing thing- in addition to anti-discrimination laws, all public buildings must, by law, have ramps or wheelchair lifts, which is definitely not the case in the UK. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but I don't remember being asked any questions about my health in any job other than what help I might need under the AWDA to do my job. I also thought it was strange when I learned during my initial job search that it is almost expected for a woman to put her marital status and the number of children she has on a CV - that would never happen in the states.
posted by cilantro at 5:00 AM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK and have been involved in the "hire & fire" process at several institutions.

Its been a while since my UK Employment Labour Law seminars, but I'm very surprised to see something like this, considering how much trouble you could potentially cause for the employer solely on the basis of this profile building. Are you certain this is corporate pushing the profile, and not an overzealous manager, perhaps one on a mission?

Crap this is such a ridiculous hurdle they've put in front of you, I have to say I'm amazed an entity in the UK would try to do this. Its certainly counter to any job application I've filled out while working in the UK or the data HR has collected and provided to me while we've been hiring someone. I've tried to present some questions you should get answered before you provide any information. And let's not trivialise the exercise by referring to this as a "form" or "questionnaire" - this is a profile full stop, with all the dehumanising ramifications such practices entail.

First thing to get resolved - are you perhaps being singled out? Does everyone who is considered for permanent employment have to fill out this documentation? They absolutely CAN NOT treat any prospective employee, employee or group of employees differently.

What will happen with this information once they've collected it? Who - specifically what other companies - will this information be shared with? Who in your employers offices will have access to this information? How will they protect it? How long will this profile be retained for? Is this data collected just to determine if they should proceed past the probationary period or not? They are obliged to answer these queries under The Data Protection Act.

Further issues, but somewhat more idiosyncratic due to the rather unique questions put to you -
why is this information relevant to the job you've been recruited for and in fact have been (presumably satisfactorily) performing? Will this profile be regularly updated, and if so, how often? What is the mechanism for updates - fill out the same damn form again or only the changed information? What happens if you provide misleading answers? How do they propose to handled changes - are you obliged to immediately inform your employer should you, for example, decide to take up smoking? Or wait for the next update? How will they verify this data once collected? Will medical tests be arranged depending upon your answers? If so, will they pay for your time to take the test?

As someone else noted it all depends upon how badly you want this job.

But you've got every right to be offended. I'm offended just reading about it! A couple of ways to play the situation; walk away because unless this is the action of a rogue manager, this invasiveness into your personal space will only get worse. Second way - fill out the profile then take the bastards to a tribunal should you NOT get the job.

Speaking as an ex-pat New Yorker, this profiling would be barely legal in America. Its totally unacceptable in the UK.
posted by Mutant at 5:12 AM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

"...take the bastards to a tribunal should you NOT get the job."

Ok, I took a couple of deep breaths after my initial post. You probably won't have access to a UK Tribunal, as dismissals for any / no reason during or at the end of your probationary period are acceptable.

But I'm still offended by this attempt at profiling. I'd suggest you dust off the CV and find another job. PIA, I know, but somethings things just work out like this. Better you found out early rather than after a longer term of employment. If profiling is a consistent practice at this firm, the fact you're troubled enough to post a query shows there wouldn't be an appropriate match in terms of corporate cultures.

I'm really sorry to hear someone in the UK is trying this on.
posted by Mutant at 5:17 AM on January 5, 2008

follow-up from the OP
grouse: thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

45moore45: great idea! I have a review coming up, so I might sit in the interview and keep twitching.

AmbroseChapel: no, that's just hyperbole on my part. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the question on there, though.

cilantro, Helga-woo, mutant: thanks for the information.

quinoa, loiseau: yeah, I'll definitely ask my boss in the review.

I don't think it's my manager who has drawn this up. One of the tills crashed the other day, and we had to alt-tab out of the screen to sort the problem out. My manager was adamant that alt+escape would switch between windows. She has also never heard of the "restart" function of a PC. I can't see her having the knowledge to open a Word document and use something as advanced as tables...

If you want to see, there is a picture of the questionnaire at this link - http://img183.imageshack.us/img183/1466/questionsjy2.jpg. Be warned, though, that it's over 1mB in size.

Thanks to everyone who has responded. I think I'm going to ask at the review I'm due in a weeks time why I'm being asked these questions, what is going to be done with the information, etc, and if I'm not satisfied with the answers I get, just refuse to fill the sheet in. Or maybe just forget about it entirely, and act stupid when I'm asked about it. Or maybe I could ask my boss how she copes with her halitosis, and see how she likes it...
posted by jessamyn at 10:09 AM on January 5, 2008

Speaking as an ex-pat New Yorker, this profiling would be barely legal in America. Its totally unacceptable in the UK.

As a datapoint, I went through a very similar survey when I worked for a large-ish government organisation in the UK. This certainly isn't something unique. I make no comment about the legality.

I answered honestly (some alcohol, asthma, some history of depression) and it didn't cause me any problems. YMMV.
posted by Infinite Jest at 10:28 AM on January 5, 2008

I went through a similar questionnaire and even had a medical checkup and blood test by a local occupational health group when I started my affiliation with my institute. I was somehow under the impression that this was mainly to cover them if I claimed against them for a condition that allegedly arose on the job, which in reality might have preexisted.
posted by grouse at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2008

It might be worthwhile to contact the Information Commissioner's office about this. More about your legal rights here.
posted by rjs at 1:12 PM on January 5, 2008

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