When you hear the term “genetics,” you might think back to your high school biology class and learning about heredity vs. environment, genetic variations, mutations, and so forth.
When learning about genetics, we tend to focus on the typical subjects – how genetics influences things like your hair color and eye color, how some genetic traits are dominant and others are recessive, and how genetics can influence how healthy you are and whether or not you develop certain diseases.
Of course, there are many other uses for genetic information. But do genetic factors play a role in the workplace?
This is a tricky question.
In short, yes, genetic factors can influence what happens in the workplace. But it isn’t as simple as that. Additionally, we should be asking this: Should genetic factors play a role at work?
What is Genetics?
Before we get into a discussion of whether or not genetics should factor into workplace issues, we need to quickly review what genetics is.
A short definition might be as follows: the study of genes and heredity.
As part of the study of genetics, researchers examine how parents pass their traits on to their children. Our DNA, which we get from both parents, dictates what traits we inherit. Part of our DNA is genes, which are essentially the instruction manual used by DNA to build molecules.
DNA is in the form of a double helix, or a twisted ladder shape. The rungs of the ladder are comprised of four bases: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. How these bases are sequenced is what provides the instructions for molecules to be built.
In all, humans have about 20,000 genes. The entirety of the collection of genes is called the genome, which can be found in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies. While the human genome is essentially the same from one person to the next, there are slight variations. For example, sometimes proteins aren’t formed correctly, which means they can’t perform their duties. As another example, variations in genetic sequences might result in one person having a particular type of disease while another person does not.
Our genetic material is stored in chromosomes. Humans usually have 23 pairs of chromosomes. The chromosomal pairs have the same genes, but each member of the pair have different versions of those genes. This is because one set of genes comes from the mother and the other come from the father.
What Effects Do Our Genetics Have on Us?
As noted earlier, genetics plays a clear role in some aspects of who we are.
Our height, the color of our skin, the length of our limbs, and whether or not we can roll our tongues into the shape of an O are just a few examples of how our genetics influence our appearance.
Genetics also plays a role in our behavior and the expression of genes, though this is a much more complex process than simple phenotypic traits. That’s because genetics and our environment can work together to influence our behavior and genetic expression.
That is, depending on the environment in which we grow up, certain genetic factors may or may not be expressed.
For example, if you carry an obesity gene, but you grow up in a household in which healthy foods are the norm, the obesity gene might not be triggered and you might grow up to be an average weight. However, if you grow up in a household in which nutritious foods are not readily available, the obesity gene might be triggered and you might grow up to be heavier than average.
The same principle applies to certain behaviors. For example, researchers have found that a child’s achievement in school is the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In fact, researchers have discovered that achievement in school is mostly controlled by genetics – about 70 percent of a child’s success is due to genetics while the remaining 30 percent is due to environmental factors.
As a result of studies like this, questions about what role genetics plays in the workplace have become more common. After all, if something like achievement is controlled so greatly by genetics, it stands to reason that something like workplace performance might also be greatly influenced by our genes. So, in a very real way, who we are at the genetic level might have a significant impact on how we perform at work.
Genetics and Success
The notion of employees being hardwired for varying levels of success and achievement raises some complex questions about the ethics of rewarding people for whom skills such as leadership come naturally.
Rewards in the workplace are basically predicated on the idea that everyone has the same opportunities to rise to certain positions. For example, if two employees at a restaurant start on the same day in the same position as a waiter, they theoretically have the same opportunity to work their way up to head of waitstaff. But what if one of the two employees is genetically predisposed to be a better leader? At what point does rewarding people for certain types of skills become a matter of rewarding them for having certain genes?
Of course, this is an oversimplification of the issue. But it illustrates one of the complications of focusing on genetic factors in the workplace.
Furthermore, it is clear that certain workplace dynamics can be altered by changes in the environment.
For example, if one of our two restaurant employees works the day shift, which tends to be less busy and chaotic, and the other employee works the night shift, we might find that the day shift employee demonstrates better organizational skills – a skill that’s sought-after for promotions. Yet, their ability to stay on top of orders, work their tables in a timely fashion, and complete the other duties of their job with a high degree of competency might be the result of the environment (the less busy day shift) as opposed to their inherent abilities.
You can see how linking genetics with success in the workplace can be a dicey situation.
Having said that, research in the work design space has shown that genetics do play a role in one’s work characteristics and well-being in the workplace. Environmental factors are, of course, also in play.
The research on this topic was simple: to study the effect that genetic makeup has on work characteristics like job control, job complexity, and job demands, researchers examined a large sample of same-sex twin pairs that were raised in the same household. The findings of the study indicated that there is a genetic influence on the measures of job demands, job control, and job complexity. In other words, it isn’t just the environment in which a person works that influences their job performance; rather, their genetic makeup affects their work characteristics.
Genetics, Environment and Worker Satisfaction
Why do people choose the jobs they do? Why do people thrive in some jobs and not others? Some scientists would say it is because of genetics.
According to an article in Wharton Magazine, job satisfaction has a genetic basis. The values and interests people bring into the workplace, their leadership abilities, how they interact with others, and more, can all be traced back to genes.
Environment is certainly a factor as well, but studies have also found that genetic differences tend to have a bigger influence when environmental conditions are similar.
This does not mean that there is no point in trying to improve workplace dynamics or acquire a skill that does not come naturally.
However, recognizing the role of genetic factors in the workplace, including how they influence temperament and ability, can help a workplace better understand that influencing employee behavior can be complex.
For example, some employees may be hardwired to respond better to certain types of incentives, workspaces, and management styles than others. So, if the goal is to improve employee productivity by offering a small monetary bonus for meeting performance goals, not all employees are going to be motivated to increase production. Instead, some employees might respond better to additional time off as a reward for bettering their output.
As another example, some employees are more prone to respond to laissez-faire management styles than others. Where one employee might value having the freedom to do as they see fit, others might perform best if their direct manager engages in an authoritative management style that sets certain expectations and boundaries.
The point is that these factors (and many others) are often influenced by our genetic makeup. If you are a go-getter and can work independently without much oversight, it isn’t necessarily because you’ve made the conscious decision to work that way. Instead, your genetic makeup likely has more influence than you think over your workplace habits.
As a result, job satisfaction might be influenced, at least in part, by your genetics. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense – if your drive to succeed and your desire to learn more in order to perform better on the job is partially rooted in your genetics, then you have a predisposition for enjoying your work. Your genes give you the grit and determination to get the job done and do it well, which leads to success on the job. Having success on the job improves your attitude about the work you do, which in turn leads to improved job satisfaction.
Occupational Health and Genetics
Physical genetic traits are easier to identify and test for than traits such as leadership, and it is unlikely that scientists will be identifying a “leadership gene” anytime soon as they have identified genes associated with a certain disease. However, some genes do affect a worker’s susceptibility to certain diseases.
The gene itself does not cause the disease, but the disease may occur when it is triggered by the workplace environment. The genes involved, the type of exposure, and the length of time the worker is exposed to certain environmental triggers will all affect the occurrence of occupational diseases.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, this also raises a number of ethical questions about who already has access to a worker’s medical history and genetic profile, who should have that access, and what should be done with that information.
For example, one question is whether employers would have the right to refuse a job to a worker more likely to develop an occupational disease. While an early warning for developing a disease might be viewed in many cases as a benefit, if an employee or potential employee is found to have the warning signs of an occupational disease, it might be used against them in terms of their employment.
So, while on the one hand, genetic factors might influence an employee’s success on the job, genetics might also influence whether or not someone even gets a job in the first place.
The Great Nature vs Nurture Debate Won’t Soon Be Over
Studies have shown that many of the traits we possess are more than 50 percent inherited. That means that our genetics plays a greater role than our environment in the expression of many characteristics.
For example, studies show that our ability to handle stress is linked to genetics. At the same time, our willingness to obey authority is also partially linked to genetics. These are obviously important factors when it comes to employees in a workplace.
This isn’t to say that there’s a gene for everything, nor is it to discount the power of one’s environment to change one’s abilities and behavior. The point is simply that our genetics are a powerful thing, and they could influence the workplace in ways that we don’t yet understand.
The question of whether nature or nurture is a greater influence on people is an old one, and despite new research, it is unlikely to be solved soon. It seems clear that there are still many unanswered questions regarding the degree to which genetic factors play a role in the workplace, but in the years ahead, employees and employers may increasingly confront them.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated September 2021