Doing the Right Thing Without Laws to Require It

Given the current leadership in Washington, it’s not likely that we’re going to see too many laws providing more protection to workers: instead, we’re mostly seeing efforts to scale those back. But even without specific laws in place, there are corporations out there attempting to do right by their employees. While there’s the obvious point to make — that it obviously coincides with their business interests to do so — unfortunately there are enough companies out there that don’t seem to get it that makes these efforts still noteworthy.

IBM Announces No Genetic Testing of Employees

IBM made headlines this week when it announced that it pledged never to use genetic data to screen its employees and applicants for hiring or in determining eligibility for its health care or benefits plans. Experts in this area say that the I.B.M. pledge to its more than 300,000 employees worldwide appears to be the first such move by a major corporation. (See New York Times article.)

IBM corporate blogger Todd Watson says of the decision:

We believe there is ample reason to plan ahead and develop policies and practices that appropriately balance the beneficial use of such information with respect for individual preferences and protection against the harmful use of such data. That means that public policy, private-sector leadership and individuals must work together to create a non-discriminatory environment that is needed to enable continued advances in healthcare and medicine.

(See Todd Watson blog, entry of Oct. 10, 2005).

IBM’s chief privacy officer, Harriet Pearson, has this to say: “Genetic information comes pretty close to the essence of who you are, it’s something you can’t change. It has nothing to do with your employment, how good your contributions are, how good of a team member you are, so making a policy statement in this case is the right thing to do.” (See USA Today article.)

Certainly, the move makes sense for IBM from a business perspective. As a Business Week analysis of the article points out, “Big Blue is a big player in medical-information technology, offering a variety of computing technologies for medical and pharmaceutical research….IBM knows that if people think medical information will be used against them, they may resist getting the tests its clients are generating. And that could hamper growth of a key market.” (See Business Week article.)

While IBM blogger Watson points out that “30-plus state legislatures in the U.S., as well as the U.S. Congress, are considering the enactment of Federal genetic non-discrimination legislation,” we have unfortunately not yet seen the critical mass of legislation that would legally require more companies to follow IBM’s lead. Although the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, the bill has become stalled in the House.

While workers still need to urge the House to take action to make genetic discrimination against the law, workers also need to act locally, by encouraging their own employers to follow Big Blue’s lead. Otherwise, much of the scientific progress made in the last decade in mapping the human genome and identifying the source of many genetically–linked conditions could be stalled because people would be afraid of getting the information that would otherwise be of great advantage to them for medical purposes.

Companies Not Behaving Badly

Gretchen Morgenson, the New York Times reporter who is most well-known for her annual survey of corporate pay (which unfortunately these days is a chronicle of the worst examples of corporate greed and runaway CEO salaries), recently drew attention to companies who provide more praiseworthy examples of officer compensation practices.

Here’s some of the shifts that Morgenson’s article highlights:

The shifts that some companies are making include salary reductions for chief executives, a greater focus on performance-based stock awards and a heightened interest in limiting the dilution to existing shareholders from stock option grants. Some companies have even begun to monitor the pay gaps between those at the top of the ladder and those down below; a couple of standouts are making clear to their shareholders just how the corporate jet is used.

(See New York Times article.)

For example, Tidewater Inc., a supplier to the offshore energy exploration industry (which is certainly doing well these days), bucked the tide by reducing the salary of its chief executive, Dean E. Taylor, from $500,000 in 2003 to $470,000 in 2005. Thomas P. Raimondi Jr., the chief executive of the MTI Technology Corporation, a small data-storage company, saw his salary drop from $425,000 in 2000 to $337,000 last year.

Staples, the office supply company, says about its culture: “Staples is a frugal company. Our C.E.O. flies coach; he drives a late-80’s Toyota (mine’s even newer than that); there are no executive parking places. It’s the culture that Staples operates in.” Now that was easy. Why aren’t other companies following this lead?

Morgenson points out, “Although these companies remain a distinct minority, any enterprise bringing more reason to the insanity that is executive pay surely merits a moment of applause.” Let’s pause for a round of clapping for IBM, Tidewater, MTI, Staples, and the other companies Morgenson highlights — they shouldn’t deserve that moment, but in the world we live in, they’ve certainly earned it.

And we share Morgenson’s hope that “[i]f increasing numbers of companies rein in executive pay and perks, maybe, just maybe, those that continue to dispense outrageous fortunes to their executives will be shamed into acting more responsibly. It’s a reach, sure, but one can always hope. “

More Information:

Workplace Fairness Action Alert:
Stop Genetic Discrimination By Employers and Insurers

Coalition for Genetic Fairness

Workplace Fairness: Short-Changed:
profits before people: the income gap

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa est étudiante en troisième année de licence à la faculté de droit de l'université de Syracuse. Elle est diplômée en journalisme de Penn State. Grâce à ses recherches juridiques et à ses écrits pour Workplace Fairness, elle s'efforce de fournir aux gens les informations dont ils ont besoin pour être leur meilleur défenseur.