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When the Tribune Company announced last year that it was going to start charging employees who smoked an extra $100 a month for medical coverage, it had an excellent rationale for doing so: while recouping a little of the $100 million a year it was spending on medical coverage, the company would encourage smokers to quit -- if they completed a company-sponsored cessation program the surcharge would end and be refunded.
When the Tribune Company announced Tuesday that it was dropping the surcharge, it had an excellent rationale for doing so: "While well-intentioned," executive vice president Gerry Spector told employees by e-mail, "we think the tobacco-use fee implemented by the previous management team is inconsistent with the new culture we're developing -- we'd rather you use your own judgment when it comes to tobacco use, not impose ours upon you."
The $100-a-month fees will all be reimbursed, said Spector, whether employees stopped smoking or not. The free cessation program will still be offered.
The new culture came in with Sam Zell, the Marlboro-puffing CEO who took over in late December. The smoking surcharge kicked in on January 1 but it was doomed from the start. A few days later employees received a new handbook whose rule number one says, "Use your best judgment." Not that smoking ever represents good judgment, but the real point of the handbook is to exhort employees to loosen up and risk being wrong. "Play to win. . . . Question authority and push back if you do not like the answer. . . . Working at Tribune means accepting that sometimes you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use. You might experience an attitude that you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you might not consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, non-linear atmosphere is important to the creative process. This should be understood, should not be a surprise and is not considered harassment."
There's a hint of wishful thinking in all this, unfortunately. If only the troubles of the newspaper industry could all be blamed on lost gumption.