Listing employees hometowns on ID badges

Q: Our hospital has recently
started a policy of listing employees hometowns on their ID badges. I have no problem with it, but several of my technologists object. Can the hospital require this information on the name badge?

A: You pose an interesting question.
For a number of reasons, I believe that it is not advisable for an institution to require employees to disclose this information as a condition of employment. 

I first remember seeing such name badges years ago at Disney World (probably as a reflection of its worldwide recruiting efforts), and I believe this appearance of nonwork-related information on ID badges can be traced to the increased emphasis on marketing and customer satisfaction in healthcare, akin to that in the hospitality industry. Healthcare institutions that have started this practice (and it seems to be spreading) report that it gives patients an instant connection to employees, and if nothing else serves as a spark for conversation. Employees who accept the idea find that it gives them a sense of individuality as people with personal histories, even when working for large corporations. Some advocates report that the inclusion of hometowns or countries of origin has produced a real family feeling among staff that otherwise feel disconnected from each other. 

These are all worthy goals, but its worth remembering that the purpose of the identification badge is to identify the individual to both patients and staff, and to provide security clearance for sensitive areas of the hospital. For these purposes, the employees name, position and title, department, and, occasionally, a barcode for access through computerized security devices, are generally sufficient. Some institutions have chosen to limit even this information out of respect for the privacy of employees and do not include the full name of the employee on the badge, only the surname and initials. In general, identification badges should contain only the information necessary for the purpose at hand, and place of origin is neither.

There is also the human resources maxim that an employer should avoid seeking unnecessary information about employees, because it raises the possibility that the employer can be accused of improper action based on that knowledge. In other words, if an employer not only knows that an employee is a member of a minority group (having been born, for example, in Central America), but chooses to publicize the information, it may lay the groundwork for an employee to claim discrimination based on national origin. Even if the claim is baseless, a presumption of impropriety may result from the employers emphasis on having and displaying the information. Employers cannot legitimately ask about country of origin in an employment application (though it is permissible to ascertain whether an applicant can legally work in the U.S. and has all requisite visas); it seems unwise to then later require that this information be publicly displayed to all who might encounter the employee.

Even if an employer does not act improperly on the basis of this information, publicizing country of origin exposes the employee to potential harassment and discrimination from the occasional biased or bigoted patient. Perhaps most important in your case, an employee has objected. Because there is no clear legal support for requiring this information to be a part of an identification badge, once an objection has been made, it would seem wise to retreat from the requirement. 

You might ask that your institution either discontinue the practice altogether or make the inclusion of such information entirely voluntary. There are other, better ways to build team spirit that do not raise the specter of harassment or litigation.

Barbara Harty-Golder is a pathologist-attorney in Sarasota, FL. She directs the clinical laboratory at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Sarasota, and maintains a law practice with a special interest in medical law. She writes and lectures extensively on healthcare law, risk management, and human resources management.

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