Middle East firms remain relatively unconcerned about their employees smoking, recruitment experts say, despite a U.S. report claiming that workers who take cigarette breaks cost $6,000 extra to hire.
Recruitment firms and some regional employers say they are no less likely to employ a smoker, despite evidence that such workers could be less productive than their non-smoking peers.
“I wouldn’t waste a good candidate because he or she is a smoker,” Boris Fugger, a recruitment manager at a multinational IT company based in Dubai Media City, told Al Arabiya.
Research published last month in the Tobacco Control journal found that employees who smoke cost their companies $6,000 more than those who don’t.
The research “attempted to estimate the excess annual costs that a U.S. private employer may attribute to employing an individual who smokes tobacco as compared to a non-smoking employee.”
Factors such as absenteeism, time taken for cigarette breaks, healthcare costs and pension benefits all have an impact, according to the report. Smokers also cost their employers extra due to presenteeism, or the act of attending work while sick, according to the report.
Despite such concerns, Middle East recruitment experts remain unfazed by the concerns raised in the Tobacco Control report.
“A smoker can waste 20 minutes a day, but if someone is on Facebook they can be wasting five hours a day and no one can even see it,” said Fugger.
There are much better ways of measuring an employee’s performance, other than by whether they smoke or not, added Fugger.
“How companies measure performance should be the highlight of the topic… we can see quickly through tools measuring performance levels, not through whether they smoke or not,” he said.
Recruitment specialists told Al Arabiya that there was generally more acceptance of smoking among Middle East employers.
“Middle Eastern cultures are generally more accepting of smokers and the habit of smoking,” said David Mackenzie, managing director of the recruitment consultancy Mackenzie Jones.
“Throughout my eight-year stay in the region, I never had a client who set [non-smoking] as an employment precondition,” he added.
“If an employer is going to deny a candidate’s application because he smokes I think they’d be looking at their recruitment procedure the wrong way… That candidate may be able to earn the company millions of dollars.”
Hakim Othman, managing director at Chapters Executive Consultancy, a Canadian recruitment company operating in the Middle East and North Africa for over six years, said he believes that smoking is a personal matter as long as the work was getting done.
“Work comes first. Whether one is a smoker or not, achieving targets is the key,” Othman told Al Arabiya.
While employers did have the freedom to ban smoking during office hours, especially for relevant sectors such as healthcare, Othman said smoking could potentially have a positive impact on productivity.
“Some employees prefer meeting over shisha outside the office. In some cases, such an informal environment makes it easier to mingle and close deals faster,” he said.
As a business manager himself, Othman did not think that employees’ smoking habits said anything about their productivity or performance.
“Whether a smoker or a non-smoker, I think an employee should be [measured by] their productivity level and work performance, not their habits,” he said.
Among costs paid by employees, medical expenses was one of the factors cited by the Tobacco Control report. But not all Middle Eastern countries oblige companies to provide health insurance to their employees.
Some Middle East insurance companies said that smoking was not taken into consideration when they underwrite corporate medical insurance.
“Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension – these are the main factors,” a senior medical insurance underwriter at a global insurance company told Al Arabiya.
Yet despite recruitment specialists not being worried about employees’ smoking habits, some Middle East-based companies have taken it upon themselves to address the issue of smoking.
Bates Pan Gulf Group, a regional marketing and advertising agency headquartered in Dubai, saw that a large percentage of its employees in Dubai were smokers.
“Approximately 60 percent of our team smoke,” Faheem Ahamed, CEO of Bates, told Al Arabiya.
According to Ahamed, the fact that each of the company’s 150 smokers takes roughly 60 minutes for cigarette breaks daily “results in 37,500 wasted hours per year.”
BPG’s solution for this was their ‘One Extra Hour’ campaign, launched earlier in 2013. Posters were put up around their offices in Dubai, stating that those who smoked had to stay for an extra hour after the official nine-to-six working day.
A promo video was produced and uploaded to YouTube, and even the company’s voicemail announced it.
“If the person you are trying to reach is a smoker, chances are, they might still be at their desk, because all smokers at BPG have to work one extra hour every day to compensate for the smoke breaks,” the voicemail announces when one calls the company after working hours, according to the YouTube video.
Amid mixed reactions by employees, both smokers and non-smokers, Ahamed clarified that company’s intentions behind the campaign.
“Our initiative is not to discriminate between smokers and non-smokers, but to drive awareness on the potential loss of productivity.
“In the bargain, should our team members reduce or quit smoking, we’d only be happy for them,” added Ahamed.