Physical privacy is the ability of a person or a group of people to seclude themselves or to restrict access to particular information about them (Moore, 2011). At the workplace, employees have a constitutional right to enjoy their physical privacy. Thus employers can not take away their workers’ right to privacy. Despite the efforts by civil rights and labor unions to ensure privacy at the workplace, employers have always been accused of infringing their workers’ privacy. Genetic testing is one of the emerging practices at the workplace that is generally considered an invasion of employees’ privacy. This is because the results of genetic tests are often misused at the expense of the employee’s welfare (Moore, 2011). This paper analyzes the utilitarian and deontological considerations behind genetic testing at the workplace.
The Nature of Physical Privacy in the Workplace
In the modern workplace, most labor contracts require employers to respect their workers’ right to privacy. This means that the employer can only access limited information about their workers. Besides, they can only monitor the activities of their workers to some extent and use lawful procedures. It is always in the interest of every employer to closely monitor their workers. This is due to the following reasons. First, it enables them to prevent theft by workers at the workplace (Moore, 2011). Second, close monitoring enables employers to ensure employees are doing what is right and are thus meeting their targets. Finally, it enables employers to prevent misuse of resources such as telephones, computers, and the internet.
To closely monitor their employees, employers use various methods which include CCTV surveillance, wiretapping, and computer monitoring (Moore, 2011). Recently, genetic testing has been introduced to help in monitoring the health status of workers. In this case, prospective and existing workers are subjected to genetic tests to determine their vulnerability to occupational diseases. It can be implemented either as genetic screening or genetic monitoring. Genetic monitoring involves “detecting genetic abnormalities potentially caused by exposure to workplace toxins” (Sharpe & Carter, 2006). Genetic screening on the other hand involves detecting the possibility of a hereditary disease or vulnerability to toxins at the workplace. Like all other monitoring methods, misuse of information obtained from genetic tests amounts to a violation of workers’ privacy rights. For example, such information can be used to discriminate or even stigmatize workers at the workplace. A worker with a particular genetic condition may be denied promotions or access to benefits enjoyed by his or her colleagues.
Genetic screening has always been supported by various interest groups including employers on the ground that it can help to significantly reduce instances of occupational diseases (Sharpe & Carter, 2006). Through genetic testing, employers will be able to know the employees who are susceptible to workplace toxins. Consequently, they will be in a position to avoid assigning such employees to a work environment that can cause harm to them. It will thus be possible to spare the employees’ families “the physical, emotional, and financial costs as well as the untimely death associated with occupational diseases” (Moore, 2011). Employers on the other hand will increase their profits by reducing the costs associated with low productivity, high cases of absenteeism, high workers turnover, and liabilities attributed to occupational illnesses. Thus a genetic test will benefit both the employer and the employees.
Genetic monitoring acts as an alert mechanism that helps the management to detect the harmful effects of workplace toxins on employees. The test would thus enable the management to take timely corrective measures to promote the welfare of the employees and the image of the company (Sharpe & Carter, 2006). Thus regular genetic tests will be in the interest of both the employees and the employer.
Genetic testing has also been considered by employers on the ground that it enables workers to make informed decisions regarding their welfare (Miller, 2007). Genetic testing readily provides workers with information about the hazards at the workplace and the dangers such hazards pose to their lives.
Finally, genetic testing is considered based on the fact that those who are against it are free to avoid the test and seek jobs in organizations where the test is not a requirement. However, forcing employees to take the test amount to an invasion of their privacy. This leads to the rejection of genetic testing at the workplace (Person & Hansson, 2003).
Regarding deontological considerations, genetic testing should only be justified under the following conditions. First, the genetic test should be very specific and sensitive. This means that the results of the test should be associated with low cases of positive and negative false. In other words, the test should be reliable for it to be of any help to all the parties involved (Sharpe & Carter, 2006).
Second, it is advisable to have the test conducted by an independent organization (Person & Hansson, 2003). The results of the test should be sent directly to the employee. A genetic counselor can provide the relevant advice to the employee as the results are given. The results should always be kept confidential and only given to the employer with the full consent of the employee. Keeping the results as confidential as possible helps in preventing misuse of the genetic information; thereby reducing chances of privacy invasion.
Third, given the sensitivity of the genetic test results and their likely effects on the employee, it is advisable to provide professional counseling before and after the test. The counseling should be provided by a qualified professional to enhance the acceptability of the results (Moore, 2011). Besides, the counseling will enable the employee to cope with their condition after the test. Regardless of the test outcome, the employer should always pay for the cost of the counseling to enhance participation in the test.
Fourth, the employer should guarantee continued access to benefits such as insurance cover which were available to the employee before the test. Terminating such benefits based on the test outcome amounts to discrimination and leads to opposition to the test at the workplace (Miller, 2007). Thus guarantying continued access to existing benefits is a strategy of alleviating the fear associated with genetic testing. The employer must treat his or her workers equally irrespective of their health status.
Policies should be put in place to enhance job security if the employee decides to reveal the results of the test especially if the test is positive. Genetic testing can be beneficial if the employees believe that the results of the test will be used in their interest by their employers (Miller, 2007). Thus any results obtained from genetic tests should not be used to undermine the workers’ job security.
Regarding work ethics, every employer must ensure safety at the workplace. Thus if an employer fails to carry out a test on employees who subsequently become ill after being exposed to toxins at the workplace; such an employer can be considered negligent (Moore, 2011). Since ensuring the safety of workers at the workplace is a legal requirement, employers are justified to conduct genetic tests to promote employees’ safety.
The employer’s duties and obligations regarding genetic testing thus include but are not limited to the above deontological considerations. Good practice in carrying out genetic tests requires the employer to observe the above considerations to avoid infringing the privacy of the employee.
From the above discussion, it is apparent that physical privacy is a fundamental right of all employees at the workplace. However, the employees’ right to privacy has always been violated as employers attempt to closely monitor their workers (Moore, 2011). Genetic monitoring for instance has been used by various organizations to monitor the health status of their employees. Proponents of genetic testing argue that it enables employers to determine the effects of workplace toxins on employees’ health. Consequently, it helps to prevent the occupational diseases or death associated with such diseases (Sharpe & Carter, 2006). However, in some cases, the results of the tests have been misused. This has led to unfair treatment and discrimination against workers. Thus genetic testing is currently being opposed by some interest groups as an unnecessary invasion of workers’ privacy. It is thus important to conduct the test lawfully to maximize its benefits.
Miller, P. (2007). Genetic Testing and the Future of Disability Insurance: Thinking about Discrimination in the Genetic Age. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 35(2), 46-47.
Moore, A. (2011). Privacy Rights. Pennsylvania: Penn State Press.
Person, A., & Hansson, S. (2003). Privacy at Work Ethical Criteria. Journal of Business Ethics, 42(1), 59-60.
Sharpe, N., & Carter, R. (2006). Genetic Testing: Care, Consent and Liability. New York: John Wiley and Sons.