DNA testing in the workplace

Using DNA in any kind of workplace context throws up myriad ethical questions

Toon Van Geet, global manager of direct learning partners at Cisco Systems, knows more than he probably ever wished to about the logistics of shipping bodily fluids around the world. Getting several vials of saliva out of Brazil and Moscow to the Netherlands was particularly difficult. And why was this sales manager trying to get saliva across borders? His global team were taking part in a unique development exercise based on DNA analysis, organised by Dutch company Brain Compass.

“The unravelling of the human genome means there’s been more and more attention paid to human genetics,” explains Ad De Jong, professor of marketing at Aston University and a member of Brain Compass’ scientific board. “The business angle is how it affects performance, and potentially how to recruit the right people. Genetic profiling is highly objective information about who you are.”

Loek Worm, founder of Brain Compass, says the company undertook research with about 3,500 people on DNA and identified five genes that have some relation to performance. He claims the genes can predict an individual’s natural inclination in ‘focus’, ‘bonding’, ‘influencing’, ‘boldness’ and ‘thought leadership’. The results of the DNA analysis are used in combination with other factors, such as personality assessments, to build a fuller picture of what drives someone. “It’s not nature versus nurture; it’s nature and nurture,” says Worm. De Jong adds that it’s important to remember the link between DNA and performance is correlation rather than causality. But he says he can see a future where candidates for high-profile roles present their DNA profiles along with their job applications.

Using DNA in any kind of workplace context throws up myriad ethical questions. Worm stresses that Brain Compass’ analyses are private and individual (your data is not shared with your employer or team members unless you consent) and that the company does not do a full DNA scan (only the five relevant genes are measured). Saliva samples are kept anonymous. Both Worm and De Jong have noticed that among younger generations there is more of a willingness to engage with the process, whereas older people see it as more invasive and want more information about how privacy concerns are overcome. However, Worm says once they have that information 95% of people consent to having their DNA measured.

Van Geet, who manages a global team and is always looking for new development opportunities when they get together in the same country, says there was some concern among his colleagues once he mentioned the word ‘DNA’, especially among those based in the US. “Some people were worried about not knowing what was happening with their DNA,” he says. “They had to understand what our intent was. We were clear it was all about them as individuals.” But he says once their questions were answered everyone signed up.

“There needs to be an enormous amount of communication and full clarity,” Van Geet adds, regarding whether other businesses interested in genetics should take the plunge. “There needs to be trust. It’s a good thing as an employer to have more understanding about what drives a person. What’s key is having that trust and that the individual chooses to supply that information.”

Further reading

The ethics of gathering employee data

The HR view on employee data gathering

Legal lowdown: Data gathering

21st century Taylorism: Today's information-gathering tools