Workforce.com

Charging Workers for Smoking? Uh, Never Mind …

April 23, 2008
Chicago-based Tribune Co. has been through some rocky times over the past few years, including lots of internal squabbling and infighting. The company was bought out last year by legendary wild man Sam Zell, but alas, things haven’t gotten a whole lot better given his less-than-stellar view of the people working for him. But, give Zell his due on one thing--he took a very aggressive approach to the health and wellness of his workforce. Under his leadership, Tribune took the “stick” approach and started the new year by charging workers $100 more per month if they were smokers. Although it was a policy originally put in place by previous Tribune management, Zell and his new management team ran with it, probably because it was a classic Zell approach to a workforce issue: aggressive, in-your-face and heavy-handed. It also made Tribune one of a small but growing group of employers that have chosen to take a punitive approach to workers who engage in a less-than-healthy lifestyle. Well, Tribune seems to have had second thoughts on the matter. This week, Tribune rescinded its $100 per month penalty for employees who smoke. “While well-intentioned, we think the tobacco-use fee implemented by the previous management team is inconsistent with the new culture we’re developing--we’d rather you use your own judgment when it comes to tobacco use, not impose ours upon you,” said a memo from Tribune management. Notice the backhanded dig at Tribune’s previous management here? That’s complete BS, as far as I’m concerned. If Sam Zell has shown anything during his brief time as owner of Tribune, it is that he doesn’t feel bound by anything that previous management was doing. In fact, the opposite is true: Zell seems to revel in talking about how screwed up Tribune was/is and how different his regime is going to be. Unfortunately, I think Tribune was on to something with the smoking policy. It is an interesting approach to a difficult problem and worthy of debate and discussion given the huge health costs that are associated with smoking. Zell was, finally, taking a very different and groundbreaking approach to a tough problem. It’s unfortunate that he chose not to follow through. Unlike so many of the things he says and does, this one makes a little sense.