Smoking is slowly becoming less common in the U.S. In fact, 17.8 percent of U.S. adults were identified as smokers in 2013, down from 20.9 percent in 2005. The 2013 mark is the lowest rate of smoking since researchers began tracking the figure in 1965, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Still, 17.8 percent of adults equates to 42.1 million Americans. The percentage of smokers varies slightly by region, with the Midwest having a higher percentage than the West Coast, but businesses everywhere likely employ at least one smoker.
In the HVAC realm, contractors must develop policies and procedures for technicians that please non-smokers, yet don’t vilify those who do smoke. It’s a problem with no easy answer; one that is likely greyer than the cloud of smoke at the end of a cigarette.
“Technicians are the face of HVAC companies, and, many times, they’re the customers’ sole point of in-person contact,” said Gene Bartholomew, HVACR instructor at Lincoln Technical Institute in Hartford, Connecticut. “The owner has the right to decide how he wants the company represented, and an individual has rights, as well. This is where the two may often separate.”
But smoking isn’t the only taboo topic contractors have to deal with in regards to their workforces. A 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found just 21 percent of respondents said someone in their household had a tattoo in 1999, but, today, that percentage has nearly doubled to 40 percent.
When considering various HVAC contracting policies governing smoking on the job, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone has certain rights that must be taken into account.
“Let me first state I believe individuals have the right to make the decision to smoke or not, but an employer has the right to state if they wish to keep their vehicles smoke-free, and the customer has the right to limit smoking on his or her property,” said Steven Lenz, HVACR instructor, Moraine Park Technical College, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
In practice, contractors take a wide variety of approaches to smoking on the job as well as other habits and appearances. For some, the best way to tackle potential issues is to keep them out of the workplace entirely.
“Absolutely no smoking [is allowed] on a customer’s property or inside company vehicles,” said Amy Turnbull, administration manager, Blue Flame Heating & Air Conditioning, Mountlake Terrace, Washington. “If an employee chooses to smoke during a break, it must occur at least 25 feet away from our warehouse.”
Turnbull went on to say the company’s tobacco policy prohibits vaping, chewing, etc. Blue Flame technicians are also advised to avoid discussing politics with customers, swearing on customer property, or wearing soiled clothes after work is completed.
From a practical standpoint, Michael Allen, owner of Comfort Pro A/C in Melbourne, Florida, said his service technicians are encouraged to push IAQ to customers, and he feels it’s hard for customers to take a tech seriously when they smell like smoke.
“I actually had a customer complain the other day because one of my guys was cleaning a duct and took a break to go smoke a cigarette,” said Allen. “When he came back inside he stunk their house up. Now, this particular employee followed my policy by going out to the street, but I totally see the point of my customer. Smokers just don’t realize that they stink. I will be honest, during the hiring process, if someone comes in for an interview and they smell like a smoker, I consider that, especially for a service technician. I might overlook it a little more for installers, but as far as service technicians who are asking people for money by trying to push UV lights, air purification, and filtration, not so much.”
“I’ve heard of new hires losing their jobs mostly due to three things,” said Bartholomew. “Too many smoke breaks, being late or absent too many times, and being on the phone too much.”
A MORE RELAXED APPROACH
While Al Kinnecom, senior service technician at Delair Air Conditioning and Heating in Sanford, Florida, agreed with the reasons for not smoking on customer property (as did most other contractors), he said he’ll take a guy who is “a little rough, but trustworthy.”
“I would much rather have a seasoned professional working for me who has skin art showing than a by-the-rules, clean-cut guy who only knows the blue hose goes on the big pipe,” said Frank Trapani, a Dallas-area refrigeration/energy management technician. “I get the idea of a company wanting to present an image and, in a perfect world, they’d only hire perfect technicians, but that’s not the reality anymore. We come from all walks of life, and sometimes you have to read a little of the book prior to judging the cover.”
Doug Bates, district technical rep, Rheem Mfg. said an issue to keep in mind is the lack of emphasis on employer andcustomer expectations in trade schools and the ability for students to be hired.
“Smoking aside, there are a lot of things that detract from a professional appearance and result in trust problems for customers. I have no problem with individuals being individuals, but impressions, especially first ones, are a reality. There are worse impressions one can leave — far worse than whether a technician smokes or not. Dare I say it? Gauges in ears, ragged t-shirts and jeans, poor hygiene, tattoos on the neck and hands, and a hat that is four-years overdue for an oil change [are concerns].”
David Watson, senior HVACR technician at One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning LLC in Sarasota, Florida, said he’s smoked since he was 14. “As much as I’d like to quit, it’s not happening anytime soon. I’m on top of every aspect of my job, including positive feedback from customers. I’m 56, and I’m wholeheartedly absorbed in my skills, job, and customer satisfaction. However, I have enough respect for people not to smoke in their homes. I don’t even smoke in mine.”
“When a customer sees a technician standing about having a smoke on their dime, another right to complain exists,” said Lenz. It’s perhaps a very slippery policy to write.”
It may be a slippery policy indeed, and one that does not have an easily defined answer among contractors nationwide. With smoking on the decline and tattoos increasing throughout the nation, the decision to staff smokers or those with body modifications is an individual decision — just like the decision to smoke or get tattooed.
Publication date: 11/16/2015