Downsize Staffers, Not Staff?

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 09-20-2005

Downsize Staffers, Not Staff?

If Global Warming, the H5N1 Virus, killer hurricanes, the possibility of Joe Lieberman's running for president in 2008, and the never-ending quagmire in the Middle East don't have you scared to the point of considering being a guest on the Jerry Springer show, how about this recent revelation from a press release:

"Overweight employees could be costing you millions, if not billions, of dollars."

Darn. And I thought they fired those two network engineers in the last reorg.

The press release raising this super-size specter was circulated to a largely inattentive media in support of a new book, "Move It. Lose It. Live Healthy: Achieve a Healthier Workplace One Employee at a Time!" by Dr. Thomas Gilliam and Jane Neill, RN.

The pair mastermind organizational wellness programs, and are using the book to broadcast concerns about the health of corporate employees and their proposals to improve it.

But the authors and I share a question about the appropriateness of an employer taking point on the weighty issue of obesity. As Gilliam is quoted in the release:

"Encouraging weight loss is a touchy issue," Gilliam says. "Leaders think, 'Well, it's a personal matter and how much someone weighs is his or her own business.' The whole subject makes leaders uncomfortable. But the truth is, if you pay health insurance for your employees, obesity is your business. It directly relates to your economic health, which affects all of your employees in a very tangible way."

Without knocking their position as unreasonable—it's viable if you consider only the insurance costs of overweight employees— I'm on the other side in most cases.

Let's get a little law out of the way before getting into that, though.

According to the American Obesity Association, only one of the 50 states forbids employment discrimination based on weight (no, you'll have to guess or go to the link).

Studies collected by this advocacy group found that obese people get paid less for doing the same work as people not identified as obese, and that the more extreme the obesity, the deeper the pay cut.

A Western Michigan University Management school study indicated mildly obese white women made 6 percent less, and morbidly obese white women 24 percent less than their peers of weight considered "normal."

It looks to me as though in 49 of 50 states, employers are already charging the obese some (or, at 24 percent, perhaps all) of the additional costs presumed by Gilliam and Neill.

There are other costs, of course, beyond what employers throw at insurance companies, self-managed care plans and docs.

The chaos in contemporary stripped-down organizations that ensues when people miss work or go on disability is mostly invisible to accounting.

EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) already exist in most organizations, (usually) hired contractors who work though Human Resources to set up programs to buffer people's lives from non-work related problems.

Drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, workplace tragedies are all the kinds of issues that in our culture have been shed from the normal bases of assistance, family and government, and are being dumped onto or taken over by corporate HR departments.

Why?

This is an immensely perverse structure. Is your own employer any better positioned to treat someone's alcohol problem than the county public health department? Not really.

Will an employee be any more likely to turn herself in for a liquor problem to her employer (which might choose to fire her for cause) than an agency for which she already pays taxes? The county isn't going to fire her.

But while many people object to the "nanny state," you hardly hear anyone whining about the "nanny employer."

Personal issues like weight become corporate issues, and are presumed to be not just a disease, but a social problem like heroin addiction, something to be dealt with by an EAP.

It's a risible extension of the absurd idea that people's health care should be carried by their employer.

Next page: Bad health, worse health care.

Bad Health, Worse Health

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I won't get into the efficiency issues around the U.S. health care system. (Looking at the price per capita, it's the most expensive in the world, yet delivers a healthy-years life expectancy that is 22nd of industrialized countries. Total life expectancy is the same as Albania and Cuba, and below Jordan. OK, I will get into it, a little).

The only reason this empty, cancerous husk is still standing is because people are afraid of change.

The seven Gilliam and Neill suggestions push employers into new territory, the territory usually reserved for social problems.

These include unarguably decent ones, such as offering exercise programs and incentives.

People should get positive reinforcement for doing things that help both themselves and others, especially where willpower is involved (like addictions).

There are also creepy ones, such as confronting people in person to explain to them how much their behavior is costing the employer, and guilt trip them by bringing family issues into the discussion.

I'm not saying these won't ever work; I suspect they will in some cases. I just think that is not the prerogative of a normal employer, nor should it be.

It is appropriate for some employers, such as the military.

The Army can make weight targets a condition of your continuing employment.

When you join a service, you give up almost all workplace rights Americans expect in the private and nonprofit and professional practice sectors.

The level of intrusion and lack of privacy that is the norm in military service is completely off the scale most people who've never served can imagine.

But it's only a small step from making weight an EAP issue to the next logical step.

Since the explicit assumption is that fat thins the bottom line, there's a strong gravitational field that drags employers to creating job evaluation targets based on weight loss—mimicking the military model.

Lousy idea. Do you really want Tyco International or ValuJet telling you what you should weigh?

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at jeff.angus@comcast.net.