DNA an acronym HR doesn't need to know (Editor's Notes)

There may be benefits but there are also pitfalls to genetic testing
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/04/2016

Fourteen years ago — and there’s a phrase that makes one feel old — I wrote an article for Canadian HR Reporter on genetic testing in the workplace. It was so long ago that I threw a reference to O.J. Simpson in the lead — after all, for many, that seminal murder trial was the first time DNA appeared in the day-to-day lexicon.


The dilemma in 2002 was that since science had finished mapping the human genome and had a blueprint of human DNA, the groundwork had been laid for changes to the way diseases are detected and treated. That opened the door to the possibility of employers and insurance companies testing employees — or even job applicants — to see if they were at a higher risk for certain diseases.


That could have opened the door to the possibility an employer would refuse to hire a worker, or perhaps even package a worker out, if she had the genes for a disease that could eventually turn into a long-term disability leave and enormous benefit costs. 


It also opened the door to the development of new, effective and expensive medications that could be tailored to individuals. 


In 2002, the science was called “sloppy” by Chris MacDonald, assistant professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Now it’s 2016 and one of this issue’s cover stories is taking a look at the issue again, thanks to legislation that has been kicking around the House of Commons in Ottawa in various forms since 2013. 


Based on what Liz Foster uncovered in her story, I’d still call the entire genetic testing scene sloppy. Sure, the science has improved. But the human understanding hasn’t really — and that means questions abound about whether and how genetic testing should be used by employers.


Putting the costs of testing aside for now, the benefits are kind of intriguing — if HR was able to uncover information it had an employee base that was more at risk for certain diseases, it could tailor its health and wellness programs.


But there are so many pitfalls — both ethical and legal — that I’d guess most employers wouldn’t want this information at their fingertips. Bev Heim-Myers, chair of the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness (CCFG), summed it up thusly: “An employer could see that a person has a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease and think, ‘Gee, I don’t want to employ this person because in the future they’re going to be a drain on my benefits package.’”


Employment lawyers would have a field day with that case — even though Canada is, surprisingly, the only G7 country without protections in place for genetic information. That will undoubtedly change soon.  


At this point, it’s still probably best to leave genetic testing in the hands of professionals — the medical community can use the testing to identify risks and treat patients while the pharmaceutical community can use it to develop powerful medications. 


There are too many ethical pitfalls and privacy concerns for the benefits to outweigh the drawbacks in the workplace.


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