Massive advances in genetic research mean that healthcare professionals can start to treat people who may be genetically disposed to certain conditions before they even develop any symptoms. But could employees find themselves out of work because their genes don't make the grade? 


The ability to detect genetic predispositions is great news for people who may be at risk of developing cancer, heart disease, diabetes or any of a host of other conditions that are written into our genetic material.
On the downside, perfectly healthy people could find themselves discriminated against at work – or even denied employment opportunities altogether – because employers don't want to deal with the risk of poor health or other complications later on.
Should employers even have access to employees' genetic information, and are they allowed to act on that information if they do have it? This debate has been going on this week in the US as the House Education & Labout Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labour & Pensions hears arguments for and against genetic discrimination.
IBM's chief privacy officer, Harriet Pearson, testified this week and called on Congress to enact laws that prevent discrimination based on genetic information which is increasingly prevalent in the diagnosis and treatment of many medical conditions, as well as in research to discover the fundamental genetic mechanisms of major diseases.
In October 2005, IBM became the first major company to establish a genetics privacy policy that prohibits current or prospective employees' genetic information from being used in any employment decisions.
The company has decided that genetic information will not be used in hiring; in determining employees' eligibility for healthcare coverage or other benefits; or in other employment decisions to which such information is not relevant.
IBM believes genetic data should be secured not only because the privacy of such information is vital to innovation in healthcare and life sciences, but also because protecting such personal data is a natural extension of the company's nondiscrimination practice.
Says Pearson: "The reasons for making genetic privacy part of our broader discrimination protections are clear to us: first, a person's genetic profile or makeup should be treated the same as other innate human characteristics, including one's race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, age or physical abilities. Simply stated, a person's genetic profile is as natural and as inseparable from who they are as any other physical trait or attribute."
Genetic tests are already available for almost 1 000 diseases, with hundreds more under development, so personal genetic data is becoming more commonplace. The danger of not safeguarding information raises the potential for a person with a genetic predisposition toward one or more diseases to be denied healthcare insurance, lose their job or be denied employment altogether.