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Working Wise: Drug Dependency

Dear Working Wise,

I run a health-focused service business. My staff and I try to model healthy lifestyles to help inspire our clients to improve their own health. Can I ask job applicants if they smoke? If so, can I only hire non-smokers?
Signed, Curious Chiropractor

October 12, 2016

Dear Curious,

Nicotine addiction may be considered a drug dependency in some cases. And drug dependency is a medically recognized disability under the Alberta Human Rights Act. The facts in each case determine if the worker has a drug dependency, for example, is the person addicted, does their addiction limit their functions, etc.

For example, a B.C. arbitrator determined that an employer’s non-smoking policy discriminated against heavy smokers—ruling that nicotine addiction is a disability (Cominco Ltd. Vs. U.S.W.A. Local 9705, February 29, 2000).

Disabilities are a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act. Employers can’t discriminate against job applicants they discover with a disability, including an addiction. In fact, employers have a duty to accommodate job applicants and current employees who have a disability to the point of undue hardship. If an employer discriminates against a job applicant or terminates an employee without exploring accommodation options, the employee may have the basis for a human rights complaint.

You may find the alis article called What Can Employers Ask? helpful. In includes a list of common inquiries along with what to ask and not to ask.

One possible way to build the healthy atmosphere that you want without discriminating is to talk to job applicants about your healthy-lifestyle philosophy and how staff set the example for patients.

Smokers, and those clinging to other unhealthy habits like #doughnuts4breakfast, may decide that your workplace isn’t a good fit for them.

The Alberta Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on the protected grounds of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religious beliefs, gender, age, physical disability, mental disability, marital status, family status, source of income, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission has an information sheet on drug and alcohol dependencies for employers and employees who would like to learn more. The commission reviews and updates the sheet on a regular basis as new court cases are heard and decisions made.

If you have any questions about the Alberta Human Rights Act, call the commission’s confidential inquiry phone line at 780-427-7661 or 403-297-6571 or visit the Alberta Human Rights website.

The Canadian Human Rights Act applies to federally regulated organizations. It provides protections similar to those provided by the Alberta Human Rights Act, but differs slightly in some aspects. You can learn more on the Canadian Human Rights Commission website.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, Stuart Rudner with the Canadian HR Reporter wrote a story this past spring.

Photo Credit: © iStockphoto/Wavebreakmedia

Working Wise is a syndicated newspaper column prepared by the Government of Alberta to answer work-related questions from Albertans. Do you have a work-related question? You can send it to Charles Strachey (charles.strachey@gov.ab.ca), a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services.

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