By Lana Goldsmith, Intern
Scott Shane is the A. Malachi Mixon III Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. In this post, Shane deliberates the pros and cons of genetic testing in the workplace. This is an adaptation from his new book Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life which shows how a heightened awareness of your own – and your colleagues’ – genetic predispositions can make you a better employee or employer.
Our genes impact numerous aspects of our work lives, from our tendency to start businesses to our job satisfaction to our leadership abilities to our decision-making styles. While we aren’t yet at the point where companies can use genetic information diagnostically, we might be in the near future.
Some observers have pointed out that as knowledge of how our genes affect our behavior in the workplace grows, companies might benefit from using this information. That raises the question: Should companies be allowed to use genetic information in the workplace?
Many, it seems, have come down against this prospect. In the United Kingdom, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded in a 2002 report entitled Genetics and Human Behavior, “Employees should be selected and promoted on the basis of their ability to meet the requirements of the job. . . . Employers should not demand that an individual take a genetic test for a behavioral trait as a condition of employment.” (p. 183.) And, according to an April 24, 2004 article in the Wall Street Journal, Jane Zhang and Shirley Wang report that, in the recent genetic nondiscrimination bill, Congress made it illegal to use genetic information “to make hiring, firing, and other job placement decisions.” (p. A11).
Like many things dealt with definitively, there is another part of the story, which makes the issue less simple than it appears at first glance. Congress in the United States and the Nuffield Council in the United Kingdom clearly addressed one side of the issue: companies should not be allowed to hire people on the basis of something that they have no control over and can’t really change, because doing so would be inherently unfair.
On the other hand, how “fair” are other selection criteria relative to genetic testing? Numerous studies have shown the bias that people involved in the employment process have for physically attractive job candidates of the opposite sex. But appearance is, in large part, outside of one’s control, and is hard to change. So how is it fair to allow managers to make employment decisions on the basis of physical appearance, but bar them from using selection tools that incorporate genetic information?
What about the issue of fairness that comes up if we do not allow companies to use genetic data to assign people to jobs or training? If employers aren’t permitted to use hereditary information in this way, and they subsequently punish people for poor performance on the job, then we are implicitly allowing the companies to engage in genetic discrimination.
To see what I mean, take the example of a company which provides its employees with financial rewards if they take courses to develop their leadership skills, as Stephen Robbins and Tim Judge’s best selling textbook, Organizational Behavior (13th edition, Prentice Hall, 2009) reports a number of companies do. A sizeable portion of the difference between people in the ability to direct others comes from their DNA. This means that some people are genetically inclined to do better than others in leadership development classes. By giving bonuses for the completion of these courses, a company is implicitly rewarding people (in part) for being born with versions of genes that predispose them to take charge of groups.
There is also the issue of companies’ responsibility to their employees. Would it be fair to prohibit employers from conducting genetic tests on their employees if the goal was to ensure that no one had a disorder that put him or other workers at risk of harm? This question is not farfetched. We know that Huntington’s disease, which is genetically determined, leads some people to engage in antisocial behavior. What if companies could minimize the risk that one of their hires would harm other employees or customers by identifying whether or not the people working for them had the genetic variant responsible for the disease?
Some believe that, under these circumstances, the benefit of genetic testing to the majority of workers would outweigh the cost to the tested employee. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said (in its report Genetics and Human Behavior) that employers could genetically test their hires if the former believe that the latter might be suffering from a genetic disorder that would result in harm to the employee or others.
Even if we decide that the use of genetic information in employee selection is ethically unacceptable, understanding the role of DNA in work-related behavior is still important. Genetic analysis points out how much of the difference in people’s actions is accounted for by situational factors and how much is explained by innate forces. The share of behavior that comes from each of these tells us whether organizations are spending too much time and money on issues such as incentives and training.
To understand how, it is best to think of what it means for something to be unaffected by DNA and compare that to the case where something is completely genetically determined. If genetics accounts for all of the differences between people, then nothing else affects their behavior. Not the way that their parents raised them or what they learned in school or the conditions at their jobs. Under a scenario in which outcomes are 100 percent the result of DNA, any changes that companies make to financial incentives, organizational structure, communication patterns, and training will have no effect on employees’ behavior.
From this extreme, it is easy to see that the proportion of the variance between people in their decision making, leadership, creativity, innovation, and so on that is accounted for by genetics influences the usefulness of efforts to change employee behavior through training, organizational restructuring, financial incentives, and the like. The more genetics is responsible for workplace outcomes, the less important these efforts will be. As a result, companies may be spending more time and money on these activities than is justified, given the limited effect that these initiatives can have.
Interactions between genetic predispositions and environmental stimuli probably account for much of the difference between people in workplace outcomes. These interactions mean that people with an innate tendency to some aspect of job-related activity, be it leadership or job satisfaction or intuitive decision making, will not engage in that behavior unless stimulated by the right external trigger. As a result, influencing what people do in organizations depends a lot on figuring out the correct stimulus for different outcomes. Thinking in terms of these interactions will help employers to choose the right triggers to get the results they are looking for, be it workplace performance, job satisfaction, or something else.
For instance, suppose that your company is interested in enhancing employee leadership. Research shows that the ability to direct others tends to emerge among people with the right genetic predispositions if those people experience situations in which they need to overcome obstacles. This information suggests the value of knowing both who in the organization is genetically predisposed to take charge and exposing those people to settings which trigger their leadership tendencies.
In short, the issue isn’t as clear cut as it appears at first glance. There are disadvantages to not using genetic information in the workplace. After careful consideration, we may decide that the costs of using this information outweigh the benefits. But to come to that conclusion, we first need to actually consider how genetics affects workplace behavior.