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Lifestyle testing

In addition to assessing your career history, some employers would like to know even more about your personal background. Drink and drugs testing is already on the agendas of some employers, and in the near future we may be faced with the prospect of genetic testing to screen out jobseekers with a pre-disposition to certain major illnesses.

A prospective employer can test you for drink or drugs but only with your consent. Many employers have policies that lay out what is expected of staff and what is not tolerated. Some employers will require you to undergo a medical examination before confirming a job offer, and they may also ask to take blood or urine samples for the purpose of testing for drink or drugs use. Clearly this poses something of a Catch 22 situation for jobseekers, for if you refuse how likely are you to get the job?

Normally employers justify testing for drink or drugs on the basis of health and safety, e.g. where employees use heavy or dangerous equipment. However, they are more commonly using testing for personal ‘lifestyle’ reasons too, as employers become increasingly aware of how certain lifestyles can affect performance at work.

Employers may justify genetic testing for a number of reasons: to avoid recruiting people who might take more than the average amount of sick leave; to eliminate those who may be a potential danger to themselves or others; or to identify those who may be sensitive to specific features of the workplace, such as certain chemicals. How things will develop is uncertain, however discrimination due to genetic predisposition to illness could be illegal under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Race Relations Act 1976 might also apply if the condition being tested for is gender or race specific. For example, one could claim that refusal to employ someone because they show a risk of sickle cell disease constitutes indirect racial discrimination. Genetic test results are likely to be classed as ‘sensitive personal data’ under the Data Protection Act 1998. Anyone processing such data must meet special conditions including gaining consent from the individual to whom it relates.

An individual’s right to a private life is covered by the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998, but applies directly only to those in the public sector. This right to privacy can also be overridden in certain circumstances, such as where it is necessary in the interests of public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health, or of the rights and freedoms of others. Arguably being made to undergo testing for drink and drugs might infringe on the right to have your private life respected, given that some tests are unable able to distinguish when drink and drugs are taken. In a court what matters is what is deemed reasonable. For example, a pilot may be punished for having drugs/alcohol in their system, as it may affect their performance and jeopardise passenger safety. However, an office worker suffering the after effects of a weekend hangover is less likely to be tested.