What if your employer knew more about you than you did?
Sounds scary, but it could happen in the near future. Recently, the University of Akron in Ohio modified its procedures for hiring new employees. The new policy included a clause stating that applicants “may be asked to submit a DNA sample for the purpose of a federal criminal background check” — making Akron the first employer in the U.S. to ask for such samples.
The university defended the modification by citing changing methods of criminal investigation, claiming that DNA technology will soon supplant fingerprinting in identifying perpetrators. While it’s an interesting comparison, this rationale did not justify the implemented procedural change, and demonstrated both a misunderstanding of new technologies and a lack of respect for employees’ privacy. The university removed the phrase from its policy last Wednesday, but the ramifications of the original clause deserve some attention, lest other employers consider implementing similar policies.
Background checks using employee DNA sequences may, eventually, become common. However, handing over one’s DNA in any situation raises both practical and moral issues that bear close examination.
To begin, background checks constitute an inherent invasion of privacy. Some jobs may necessitate this invasion, but many do not. The American Association of University Professors recommends that schools conduct them “only as necessary to secure information that may ensure that applicants are qualified to meet the particular obligations of specific positions,” according to a (long-winded) 2004 report. Penn, for its part, requires checks for some jobs, but not all. DNA, however, provides much more information than when a job candidate got his last parking ticket.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment, keeping in mind that the University of Akron placed no written restrictions on the eventual fate of the DNA samples collected. Imagine that, rather than simply determining an applicant’s criminal background (which would compare key sequences to those stored in a national criminal database, assuming they could obtain legal access), the university decided to sequence the DNA provided and see what it could find.
The answer? Due to 50 years of fast-paced, medically revolutionary genetic research, the school could encounter details about a person that she didn’t know herself.
Take, for example, the potential faculty member with 36-plus repeats of a specific amino-acid sequence in the HTT gene. This faculty member will eventually develop Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder causing a decline in physical abilities and coordination as well as cognitive decay and, one day, dementia. The applicant quite possibly has no knowledge of her condition.
As an employer, do you hire this applicant? Do you tell her of her condition? Years later, do you grant her tenure? These are difficult questions better left to bioethicists.
Another example: Consider a transgender applicant. A quick karyotype shows that the man in front of you has not an X chromosome and a Y chromosome but, rather, a nice XX. Due to concerted effort on the part of Penn’s LGBT organizations, Penn’s anti-discrimination policy prohibits gender identity from playing a role in hiring decisions; many institutions, including the University of Akron, have no such clause. What then?
Without specific language clarifying the fate of any samples an employer might collect, these scenarios could come true.
At a time when a simple Google search provides access to basic data and intimate personal details alike, it is reassuring that limits on the invasion of privacy still exist. As medical technologies change how we think about our genes and the information they encode, it is important to carefully approach each new step in the use of these developments. Critical coverage of Akron’s DNA-collection policy meant that it lasted only a few months, and the school did not collect any actual samples.
Next time, perhaps, the university in question will think it through before trying to implement such a policy.
Lindsey Stull is a College senior from Oklahoma City. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.Comments powered by Disqus
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