Genetic testing in recruitment – science fact or science fiction?

Jul 11 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Asking a question about the spectre of any sort of genetic profiling in recruitment may seem an odd one at the current time.

After all, it is only in recent days that the sole British company selling genetic tests directly to the public has decided to withdraw this service following pressure from consumer groups including Genewatch.

One of the concerns expressed was that some of the genetic information discovered might in future be harmful to the individual’s insurance or employment prospects.

In addition to this the Human Genetics Commission has recently presented its long awaited report, which warned of the dangers of future employment discrimination based on the results of genetic testing.

So, in light of these events, and the fact that the HGC will be spending the next six months working on a new code of practice to cover genetic tests sold directly to the public, should we all be reassured that the tide of opinion and practice is turning away from genetic testing in recruitment? Not at all, I fear.

The dangers the future holds in terms of potential misuse of genetic testing are increasingly real, and for any recruiter to take a “head in the sand” approach to the topic is unwise in the extreme, although sadly some do indeed seem to be taking this stance.

When my company conducted a survey on the issue some time back the most common entries in the “additional comments” section were that individuals did not see this as an area that they needed to be concerned about for the next five years or so. Wrong. None of us have that luxury of time.

In respect of the good work of the HGC, the dual challenge that they face is that firstly, they can only advise rather than legislate, and secondly that the advances in medical science are more rapid than any individual piece of legislation can usefully accommodate – using such new legislation to hit a “moving target” is going to be difficult to make succeed!

At present the recent advances in testing have been geared towards more and more specific health issues and inherited conditions, which can of course be argued to have a positive benefit in employment.

However, as time and research marches inexorably onwards, the chances are that tests will be developed that are capable of detecting personality traits that have a genetic element.

As always, if there is a perception that commercial advantage could be gained from such screening the temptation would be there for the unscrupulous or misguided employer to use it.

In the same survey mentioned previously and conducted as far back as 1999 we came across anecdotal evidence only that a few employers were indeed using some types of genetic testing.

For me, the 'evidence' at the time was unsatisfactory in the sense that no-one could properly corroborate the examples they had heard about.

Allowing for that, I was still concerned and shocked to hear rumours that anyone at all was either using or contemplating the use of genetic tests.

In this context, the code of practice that my colleagues produced some time ago for the Recruitment Society as part of a committee we established to investigate this area seems as relevant now as when it was devised.

Indeed, in producing its recent advice the HGC took into account our submission of that document. The key points of our recommendations ran as follows:

Genetic testing should not be permitted, unless the employer can demonstrate that:

there is a reasonable basis for doing so (for example there would be a serious risk of danger to the employee and/or others)

the risk cannot be minimised by other protective means

it would add reliable information to existing workplace health screening and surveillance practices.

Any genetic test selected by the employer must be:

proven to be reliable, accurate and valid

developed in accordance with the principles established by the Human Genetics Commission.

Employees or applicants should be informed before the tests (for the purpose of requesting their consent) as to:

the type of genetic test(s) required

why the particular job or workplace necessitates such tests

what the employer proposes to do with the test results

how long they are to be held

whom they are to be given

the possible medical and professional consequences of unfavourable test results.

Any genetic test should be conducted and carefully interpreted by a qualified occupational health physician (OHP) trained in genetic testing so that he/she may take account of how genetic test results might be affected by working conditions.

The OHP should:

advise as an expert regarding the individual's suitability for the specific job or workplace having regard to any negative test results

advise as to what reasonable adjustments, if any, would be required to the job an/or workplace

provide feedback and a copy of the report of the results to the employee

Employees and (and where hereditary diseases/disorders are being tested) their close family should be offered post-test counselling and support at the expense of the employer

Information regarding genetic testing and the outcomes must be treated in accordance with Data Protection principles and accountable to the Data Protection Registrar/Commissioner.

It is not acceptable for genetic test results to be used to exclude people from employment or advancement on the grounds that the employee has a predisposition to future ill health.

Consideration should be given by Parliament as to whether, for the purpose of genetic testing, any individual with a currently asymptomatic predisposition to a disability identified by a genetic test should be protected under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in the same way as those with other disabilities who are manifesting symptoms.

Employees should not be required to disclose previous test results in any form and any pre-employment questionnaire, application forms or medicals should make this clear.

To conclude, I would contend that we all need to be on our guard and keep our “eyes and ears to the ground” now in order to report back to the HGC of any examples or suspicions we may have, during the course of our work, of organisations seeking to utilise new scientific developments in testing in an untoward way.

This is needed largely because there is a “gap” in current regulations which were drawn up to deal with simple tests for diseases rather than the newer screens which look at the impact of many genes on health and lifestyle issues.

Still in doubt? Well, consider just one final thing. Researchers at the company referred to at the beginning of this article, Sciona, are developing a range of these genetic screens, and according to recent reported comments from their commercial director are planning imminent product launches. The projected rate? One a month over the next nine months.

And that is just one company active in this field…

Is legislation lagging behind the pace of research? Do you fear genetic testing could harm your future job prospects?

Steve Huxham is managing director of Hux Executive Recruitment. To find out more, go to