HR clinic: No smokescreen over smoking

What can we do about smokers who are causing resentment among non-smoking staff?

Most employers and staff breathed a huge sigh of relief when the smoking ban came into force in England and Wales in July. Since then, we've all seen desperate staff hanging around the entrances to offices. Now that it's colder, however, we can probably expect to see more pressure for additional comfort from those same staff, now shivering in the street.

It's not only these people who will have problems. Their non-smoking colleagues may be ever more resentful of the frequent absences of those who can't break the habit. Why should the smokers get more time off, they will ask, and make us work even harder to cover for them?

Many charities will already have anticipated these problems and introduced policies for smoking at work well before the ban became law in July. Whether or not you acted then, there are still a number of factors you'd do well to consider.

How much productivity is lost? Bad-tempered smokers prevented from getting their fix may be less valuable than those who come back to the workplace temporarily relieved of their anxieties. Smoking is an addiction. Enlightened employers help their employees to address their medical problems, and offering them support on giving up could pay dividends.

For those who can't or won't give up, managed smoking breaks are more important than ever. Try limiting them to a certain number each day - and not necessarily all at the same time, otherwise you might end up with a scene resembling the assembly area during a fire drill in front of your building.

And do you really want people lighting up in front of the office anyway, given the increasingly negative image of smoking in public areas, even open-air ones? Many employers now insist on no smoking by any employee within a certain number of metres from the office building, or they designate a separate space beyond the public gaze.

How about some compensation for staff who don't take fag breaks? Longer tea or lunch breaks could remove any residual resentment, and could also serve as an incentive for smokers to give up.

Finally, you'll need to have in place some mechanisms for staff who, despite everything, flout the smoking rules. Apart from the fact that, as an employer, you could get fined, you need to keep good order if rules are broken; so make it clear what the disciplinary consequences will be if that happens.

- John Burnell is director of Personnel Solutions

- Send your HR questions to personnelsolutions@btopenworld.com

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