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You're Fired!

by James C. Peterson 05-01-2000
You can't be laid off for bad genes. Can you?

There are currently about 900 genetic tests available. They can be helpful to understand, plan for, prevent, or treat genetically related conditions. With the approaching introduction of "gene chip" technology (which enables biologists to scour huge chunks of genomes in search of the genes that promote disease), large numbers of genetic tests are likely to become quick, relatively inexpensive, and routine.

Such accessible genetic information has many implications. One crucial area is that of employment.

Popular fears have been expressed in novels and movies that employers will use these genetic tests to choose employees not for their ability but for their genetic potential. If the employers did so, they would be misunderstanding human genetics. Human beings are so complex that a rich genetic endowment can be unfulfilled and a relatively poor one can be substantially transcended. Companies seeking to predict future performance would do far better to look at past performance and current-ability-based tests than to look at genetic heritage.

Employers are likely to try to use genetic tests to limit what they spend on medical care. To survive long term, businesses depend on producing more revenue than they consume, either by raising income or reducing expenses. Medical care is often a major factor in company costs.

Most employees in the United States are covered by company self insurance. Many of the others are under experience-based policies where a company’s premium changes with how much medical care employees need. In either case, medical care for employees and their dependents is a significant part of the employer’s outlays. Awareness of this impact is heightened for management by the concentration of medical care expenses in one subset of employees. In any given year, 5 percent of employees incur about 50 percent of health care expenditures, and 10 percent need about 70 percent of these resources.