Smoking in the Workplace

Smoking Workplace Etiquette

When your heart's on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes. Perhaps you recognize that little ditty from the 1933 musical Roberta, or maybe one of its incarnations by the Platters in the 50s or the group Blue Haze in 1973. Regardless your preferred version, you would probably agree that when he penned the words to "When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," lyricist Otto Harbach never thought about the complaints he would get from the innocent bystanders who got smoke in their eyes, their hair, and on their clothes while his pulmonary muscle was engulfed in flames of love.

The Times Are A-Changin'

The fact is, smoke of any kind is seriously out of vogue these days – especially the cigarette variety. It's no longer cool to smoke Kools or any other brand of forbidden cancer sticks.

Congress has called smoking bad, the media calls smoking bad, and public opinion overwhelmingly is against cigarettes and their byproducts: accidental burn holes, yellow walls, foul smell, and of course cancer.

Furthermore, the fallout from cigarettes and cigarette smokers has begun to hit the business radar in another way: simply put, smoking may be bad for an organization's image. If you've ever walked through the front doors of a hospital, you probably can relate. Smokers banned from the building who have found refuge outside of the facility are not exactly the welcome wagon most administrators had in mind when they exiled the puffing set. Cigarette smoke does not match the image most health facilities want to communicate to their patients and visitors.

Consequently, many hospitals and even some non-health related businesses have moved to "no smoking on the property" policies. Smokers now must find refuge in their cars or risk breaking the rules.

What's driving the trend? Economics, plain and simple. Business follows the money. If there is a big enough demand from consumers, business will change to be competitive. Take, for instance, the hotel industry. Air freshener will not mask the smell of six years of Marlboros inhaled in a room where the windows don't open. And these days, with an overwhelming majority of guests preferring smoke-free rooms, it's easier to tell a smoker not to smoke than to tell a non-smoker that there are no non-smoking rooms available. The Westin Hotels & Resorts have gone smoke-free, citing the fact that 92% of their guests request non-smoking rooms. In September of this year, Marriott brands will go smoke-free as well.

Not to be left out, dozens of state and local governments have gotten into the action by banning smoking in their own buildings as well as public bars, restaurants, and other establishments.

Is Your Image Going Up in Smoke?

What about your business? Are smokers hurting your organization's image and costing it money? The answer depends on the business you are in. Your choices should be in line with your customers' expectations. For example, if you are an event coordinator planning a meeting for a group of aerobics instructors, you might seriously consider booking them in a smoke-free facility. On the other hand, if you are booking a meeting for a group of thespians, the likelihood that you have a smoker or three in the bunch is much higher, and you may want to consider a more flexible location. The best advice: use your common sense. You wouldn't book the cattlemen's association at a vegan restaurant, would you? Not if you wanted to keep your job. And you wouldn't book a liquor manufacturers group in a tea-totaling establishment for the same reason; as the event planner your job is to think of the comfort of the majority of your guests.

Even if you are adamantly opposed to certain behaviors, when making decisions for an organization that is paying you to do what's compatible with its brand or someone else's, your personal beliefs should not come into play. If you aren't a smoker, don't force your viewpoint and vice-versa. Instead, think about the organization you are working with and its desired image.

Coping When the Fire Heats Up

Smoking is an emotional issue; even if you understand the concept of branded organizations and how smoking does or doesn't fit into them, that doesn't necessarily mean you won't have problems related to smoking smoldering at work. Here are a few possible problems that arise and some suitable countermeasures.

Problem: Your colleague smokes, and so does your senior boss. You feel that your colleague has developed a stronger relationship with your boss because of the time they spend together in puffers' purgatory. How do you even the score and protect your lungs at the same time?

Solution: Most importantly, whatever you do, if you have a smoker as a boss, keep your views on smoking to yourself. Remember: nobody asked you. Second, realize that ultimately you will be rewarded for the good work that you do, not for your amazing gift of gab in the smoking area. Third, if you're not willing to wait until "ultimately" finally does roll around and your boss really does play favorites, nothing says you have to smoke to hang out with the smokers. You can always step out for a fresh air break and join in the conversation.

Problem: You catch smoking colleagues who are unwilling to go outside and instead smoke in the building. You believe that this is inappropriate and reflects badly on your company.

Solution: First you must decide if "nicotine narc" status is worth direct confrontation. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself if anyone could die if the behavior continues. If death is not imminent, you may not need to take immediate action. Second, draw a quick parallel in your mind. If a coworker were dressed inappropriately, for instance, would you address him directly or handle the situation in some other way? If you answer the latter, direct confrontation may not be the best way to go. Unless you want to open yourself up to return criticism, think before you speak. Fair or not, your soapbox stand may become the talk of the smokers' circle. Wouldn't you rather be known for some work-related accomplishment? Strongly consider letting the appropriate people handle the issue. After all, they may already be dealing with the offenders, and your stepping in could be viewed as overstepping.

Problem: You are the smoker and fear that your smoking might affect your chances for promotion and image at your company.

Solution: For starters, take a hard and honest look at how smokers are perceived in your industry. Healthcare institutions and casinos, for instance, vary widely in their brand statements. Consequently, the expectations of what is and what isn't acceptable vary as well. Next, look at the people who have the job you would someday like to have. Are they smoking? If not, what do you think they really think about smoking? You may want to try coping with part-time smoker status. If you can physically find a way, smoke only when you are away from work. Finally, if you simply can't stop yourself from lighting up at work, at a minimum limit the length of your smoke breaks; resist turning smoke breaks into social events, and rebuild some of your credibility bringing some visible work to the smoking area with you. Working combined with smoking will certainly soften the blow.

What the Future Holds

It's a safe prediction that rules governing smoking will become more, not less, restrictive, and at some point, those new rules will become the norm. A similar case in point: pregnant women drank in public in the 50s and 60s. Today public alcohol consumption by this crowd is something rarely seen. If the issue of smoking or not smoking lights your passion, the best action to take is to plan how you will handle encounters with the other side before they occur. This way you will appear to be the buttoned-up, capable person your company thought they hired in the first place.