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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 7 * April 9, 2001

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Keep Your Hands
Out of My Genes

In human resources, applicants take many tests. There are paper and pencil tests such as multiple choice, true and false, essays, etc. There are also interviews, performance tests, assessment centers — even background and reference checks are forms of tests. Offers of employment are made contingent on other tests including medical exams, drug tests or criminal history checks.

As the profession has developed, the number and complexity of tests have also changed. Most of the changes have been for the better. The prime example is the commitment of HR professionals to equal employment opportunity and assuring that tests are job related. This involves test validation and assessing the impact of the results of tests to look for signs of unlawful discrimination. Technology has helped make tests easier by allowing for computer-based test taking, scoring, scanning and data analysis done in seconds rather than weeks.

Now, however, HR professionals themselves face another “test” made possible in other strides in technology. The wonders of the Human Genome Project will open the way to advancement in many branches of science, which we may not at all appreciate today. A funny thing happens, however, with advances in science. They lead to unanticipated consequences in social, political, economic and other policy areas.

Thorough mapping of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes will lead to predictive capabilities that will improve our health.

Our personal physicians will likely be able to order a test to determine whether our children will be particularly prone to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. How predisposed might we be to greater risks of stroke or heart attack? Today, we guess and use statistical probabilities. Tomorrow we may be able to consider with much greater direct certainty our personal probability.

Genetic testing means, in theory now, and in reality soon, that an employer will be able to determine whether hiring an applicant would present a real scientifically valid higher liability than another applicant. One applicant would be more productive for a longer period than the other. One is likely to be a higher user of unscheduled absences than another. In short, HR could become a center for genetic testing interpretation in a “brave new world” of applicant and employee testing.

The implications are fascinating and frightening at the same time. We want information as individuals that can help improve our own lives, but genetic testing opens a new debate on how far an employer can move in completing a 21st century version of a “background check.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that it is unlawful discrimination to make decisions based upon real or perceived disabilities, which may be reasonably accommodated. The probability of a future disability is not the same thing as a present liability. However, genetic testing will bring the perception closer to the reality. Already, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is weighing in on the subject by challenging the genetic testing practice of a private sector employer.

It is legitimate to use employment tests to identify and minimize liabilities while seeking to hire candidates with the best combinations of knowledge, skills and abilities to meet the agencies needs.

In America, medical care is increasingly becoming the responsibility of an employers rather than individuals or federal programs like Medicare. If insurance provisions were different, genetic testing by employers would be less likely to emerge as a “hot button” item in public administration.

Meanwhile, in the HR Doctor’s opinion, the risks of misuse or misinterpretation of genetic testing results substantially outweigh any employer value. In the next few years, the scenario may well change. We will be guided in our profession by court decisions and legislation at least as much as by scientific breakthroughs.

Until the genetic fog is replaced by guidelines which are understandable and make sense in public human resource management, the HR Doctor says “Let’s keep our hands out of other people’s genes.”

The HR Doctor hopes that all your chromosomes are healthy.

Best wishes!



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