Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid is offered DNA testing


There is something noticeably creepy about cold callers from their first sentence. Perhaps it is the way they seize upon my name and keep waving it around like a talisman. Or maybe it is the way they keep asking how I am today so that I can almost hear the forced smile on their face. So, when Somebody Unmemorable from Never-Heard-of-Them calls and asks to speak to the person in charge of benefits, I am just about to hang up. The words ‘please take me off your list’ are almost out, when Mr Unmemorable quickly explains his business. DNA testing. For healthcare. Ah.

I’ve just seen a news article on DNA profiling, and I’ve also seen a friend’s report on his unusual genetic ethnicity from a similar test. Suddenly, I want to hear more and hope I didn’t come across too rude to the man. He isn’t going to say his name again, so rather than admit I wasn’t listening, I ask how he spells it. B-o-b S-m-i-t-h. Cringe.

Corporate wellness programmes

It seems Bob is touting specific DNA tests for corporate wellness programmes. Would I like a free test so I can see what it is all about? Well, yes, I would actually. I’ve always wanted to know if I am really descended from Vikings, as it would explain everything. I don’t tell him that, obviously, I just explain that we have a wellness programme and DNA could be just the thing to get our employees engaged. Bob shares his email address and we agree to talk again.

His company, Never-Heard-of-Them, is a rival to the more trendy one I heard about on the news. And it is not just these two companies dealing in DNA. There are dozens of genetic profiling providers suddenly on the market; I can almost feel a request for proposal coming on. Bob’s website gives me the low-down on DNA testing. It seems there are many different types of tests for different applications. I discover a whole new vocabulary including ‘chromosome browsers’ and ‘haplogroups’, and I soon get rather obsessed with ‘autosomal cousin testing’. It seems once you send in your DNA, you could be connected up with long lost relatives. Oh no. I have quite enough of them already. Believe me, they are lost for a reason. Imagine (in horror) if one got matched up with someone from work. I could discover I am related to Lazy Susan. No, that much is unthinkable. I’m sure none of my ancestors would ever do such a thing with one of hers.

But still, the genealogy aspect of these reports is strangely compelling. Apparently, if you are European you are likely to be 1 or 2% Neanderthal and these tests will tell you just how much. Shouldn’t we know what proportion of our employees are actually human? There must be a fair amount of genetic Neanderthal left in the executive team; residual traits are apparent when they don’t get their way. And you only have to look at the guys in IT.

Identifying health issues

I drag myself back to the health aspects of DNA testing. It is a simple process: employees simply spit in a tube and send it off and then all sorts of ‘bioinformatics’ will be sent back. From a mere gob of saliva, Bob’s firm can identify a predisposition to various medical conditions from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. Lovely.

And then what? How would it benefit for our employees to know that they may become doolally before their peers? If the company had access (which of course it wouldn’t) such data could be a great help in succession planning, but I fail to see how that information can really help an employee’s wellbeing? The DNA test sites are peppered with disclaimers and caveats, confirming the results cannot be relied upon in any case. For any real health concerns, they point to the medical profession for proper advice. And we all know what that advice is likely to be: eat healthy, move more, drink and smoke less. Yawn. I try to work out how DNA fits into a corporate wellness programme that has ticked those boxes already. Investigating further, I see some firms are claiming that their DNA tests will identify individualised diet and training plans, but I can’t find any proper research to back any of that up.

Having pretty much debunked the whole concept, I still think DNA testing would be bit of fun and a funky new addition to our rather staid benefit offering. All I need to do is persuade Big Bad Boss that it is a good idea. Although we could all make a good guess at it, I feel sure he’d like to know his Neanderthal variants; such tests always appeal to narcissists. And even if he doesn’t go for it, I would very much like the proffered free test myself, no matter what that says about my own psychology. I ping an email to Bob, who doesn’t reply. A few days later, I ping him again. And wait. Eventually, I look on LinkedIn to find he’s just gone to another firm. Sigh.

Still, true to his word though, he does ring me back. Bob’s new firm doesn’t do DNA testing but they do medical blood test kits instead. For less than the cost of a life assurance policy, we could give employees the benefit of a full urine microscopy and culture. Or better still: a company STD and bowel parasite check. That should get us talked about in the trade press if nothing else.

Next time… Candid looks for benefits data.