Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Overweight Employees: Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement

August 11th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

Two New York Times articles which appeared in the past week covered two employers’ radically different solutions to the problem of workplace obesity. One employer refused to hire an obese candidate when his special uniform failed to arrive, while another gives its employees bonuses and extra vacation days for successfully losing weight. Guess which is the best (and non-discriminatory) solution for employers seeking to reduce health care costs?

Last Monday, the Times told the story of Joseph Connor, an experienced cook who had been offered a job at McDonald’s, only to later have the job offer rescinded. (See Obese People Are Taking Their Bias Claims to Court). Connor, who is 6’1″ and weighs 420 pounds, interviewed with a Hamden, Connecticut McDonald’s, and was told that he could start work when his special-order uniform arrived. That day never happened, curiously enough. Connor kept calling, over a period of several months, only to be told that the uniform had not yet arrived. He finally concluded that he had been denied the job due to his weight. McDonald’s claims that while waiting for Connor’s uniform to arrive, the franchise changed hands, with the new owner unaware of the promise to hire Connor.

The claim will have to be resolved in court, as Connor has filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming that the restaurant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to hire him. As Gary Phelan, Connor’s attorney, remarked: “McDonald’s tends to hire a lot of people without much training, but it refused to hire Joseph, who’s cooked for six years. There’s only one common-sense way to explain it. There are some very talented people who happen to be extremely overweight, and that shouldn’t be held against them.” Or put another way: “The only thing that should matter to McDonald’s was how he cooks, not how he looks.” (Connor’s case, and other resources for those discriminated against on the basis of obesity, were also discussed in the 4/17/03 blog entry.)

As opposed to McDonald’s alleged handling of Mr. Connor’s situation, employees at VSM Abrasives, a maker of industrial sandpaper in O’Fallon, MO, are less fat and happy these days, as a result of a company-wide “Get Healthy for Life” contest. Rather than just decrying rising health care costs and/or attempting to shift those costs onto employees, the company decided to take action. About 100 of VSM’s 135 employees joined five-member teams competing to see which could lose the most weight, and the team that shed the most pounds collectively in three months won $100 and a day off with pay for each team member. (See Shed Some Pounds (and Get a Bonus)). In fact, the program was so successful that it has been instituted as a permanent employee benefit: Employees weigh in each quarter, and as long as their weight is not above their previous reading, they receive $25. Employees who keep the weight off for a year receive an extra $25 and a day off with pay. So far this year, the program has saved the company 10 percent to 15 percent on insurance claims, said a company spokesman. Other companies cited in the article are trying exercise programs and corporate Weight Watcher meetings to accomplish similar goals.

Weight contests aren’t a perfect solution, of course: some people have extreme difficulty losing weight for metabolic and/or medical reasons, and their efforts should be rewarded, even if they cannot lose weight at the pace that other employees do. Also, just because an employee is not overweight does not mean that he or she is a healthy eater, or necessarily less susceptible to illness or injury, which is why exercise is an important component of any program. These programs also run the risk of becoming coercive, and ultimately just as discriminatory against those who refuse to participate, or who are not as successful, so companies must strive to keep the programs voluntary and fun for participants, rather than just another form of pressure for employees to manage. However, voluntary corporate efforts to encourage weight loss are far preferable to the kind of discrimination Joseph Connor and many other overweight employees have historically faced, and deserve much more exploration and attention.

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