Obese Workers Weigh on Employers’ Competitiveness

Discussion
Sep 13, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Obese employees, those 30 or more pounds overweight, are weighing down their employers with increased health care costs and associated lack of productivity because of time spent away from the job.


The results of a study published in the September/October issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion said that obesity costs companies with 1,000 people on staff an average of $285,000 because of charges related to healthcare and absenteeism.


Eric Finkelstein, a health economist for RTI International, a non-profit think tank, told USA Today that many companies are offering wellness programs and incentives for employees who keep to a healthy weight.


An increasing number of employees, however, fall beyond the scope of these programs. “Workplace wellness programs aren’t going to have much effect on people who are already 100-plus pounds overweight,” he said.


Employees who are severely overweight require “aggressive disease management,” said Mr. Finkelstein.


Moderator’s Comment: Is obesity compromising employees’ ability to do their jobs and employers’ ability to compete? In low margin businesses, such as
grocery retailing, can employers afford to hire obese workers? Considering the evidence of the costs associated with obesity, should a person’s weight be legally allowed as a
consideration in the hiring process?


For those outraged by the questions above, let it be stated that we’re simply following a path of inquiry and not advocating a position where the overweight
are denied employment.

George Anderson – Moderator

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12 Comments on "Obese Workers Weigh on Employers’ Competitiveness"


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Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 5 months ago

Lies, damn lies, and statistics…. I don’t doubt that obese people raise health care costs overall. But trying to pin down *which* obese person in your organization you shouldn’t have hired or should fire to keep your health care costs low is a non-starter. If your company has enough employees, you might benefit from, say, subsidizing gym memberships, but otherwise this is a societal problem, not so much an individual employer problem.

On the other hand, the obese are not likely to become a protected class, so the question is whether employers *should* discriminate against the obese, not whether they *may*. With health insurance premiums soaring, anything that keeps a company’s risk profile from rising may, for better or worse, drive corporate policy.

Steve Weiss
Guest
Steve Weiss
15 years 5 months ago

I wonder how much prejudice costs the average business?

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 5 months ago
If obesity were allowed to be a factor in hiring, then intelligence should also be a factor. Wait, intelligence IS a factor! In physically-demanding jobs, obese persons should not be hired. Not only do they typically underperform, but their lives are endangered. Just ask the family and fans of Thomas Herrion, our San Francisco 49er lineman who recently collapsed in the locker room and died. In the grocery store business, part-time workers typically lower their performance to the minimum level accepted by the store manager. If the manager accepts the slower performance of an obese employee, other employees slow down as well. With respect to David Livingston, this fact is not dependant on the grocery chain you are talking about. At Raley’s, one of the most respected regional chains in the nation, we were (and they remain) extra open in hiring because our community was watching. In fact, Raley’s has often been commended for hiring clerks who are challenged in one way or another, and graciously considered it their civic duty to do so. The… Read more »
Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
15 years 5 months ago

Talk about your touchy subjects. What I really don’t like about this topic is the double-standard. If your fat, and your healthcare costs are higher than a “fit” individual — you’re all of a sudden a liability. However, if you have 6 kids and cost your company 10X that amount it’s OK.

Go ahead and try to tell someone you won’t hire them because they are overweight. No discrimination lawsuit there. And what should we do with people who are fat AND have several children? What if they smoke? Or eat at McDonald’s 3 times a week?

Looks like we just cut over 1/2 the workforce in the U.S. I can see why RTI is a non-profit organization if they feel the need to print such nonsense.

George Anderson
Guest
15 years 5 months ago

Economists with the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were also involved in the number crunching, according to the USA Today article.

David Livingston
Guest
15 years 5 months ago
It really depends on what grocery chain you are talking about. Well run regionals are going to restrict their hiring to attractive people anyway. The poorly run, vanilla, publicly held companies are always looking for ways to cut labor, so having someone’s career cut short by health problems is a way of accomplishing this. And of course there is Wal-Mart who is only interested in warm bodies, regardless of shape. Since many of their workers choose not to participate in their health insurance along with high turnover, its no skin off their back. Looks and weight always have and always will be factors in hiring. Walking into a job interview being overweight — well you might as well be smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer at the same time too. There are some exceptions. Where I used to work, we noticed that if a woman was doing the hiring, they never liked to hire women thinner or more attractive than themselves. That’s probably just human nature, some primitive competition thing over attention from the… Read more »
Tom Zatina
Guest
Tom Zatina
15 years 5 months ago

The issue of obesity affects many indeed. It creates costs that burdens families, companies, health plans, and governments. No industry can really afford the added expense this condition brings, let alone the low-margin grocery business. Ultimately, all consumers and citizens pay the price. All of us must take responsibility to improve our personal wellness and reduce the cost of health care.

As to considering a person’s weight in the hiring process, I do not believe this is a solution. I do believe, however, that the overweight, like others with conditions affecting their health, have a need and an obligation to take whatever steps available to improve their own state of personal wellness. As a practical matter, as more health care costs are shifted to employees, people will find even more incentive to lose weight.

Jim Leichenko
Guest
Jim Leichenko
15 years 5 months ago

This study and discussion fit nicely into the current anti-obesity vogue, which provides ‘scholarly’ justification for discriminating against fat people. If your business has specific weight and size standards that truly affect your ability to do business, such as a police/fire department or a modeling agency, then you have a legitimate reason not to hire the overweight. But that’s it. Otherwise, you should hire people based on their qualifications, intelligence and personality.

No doubt you could pick out any group in society and find data showing how it’s not worth it to hire them. Old people and pregnant women, for instance, cost companies billions each year. But we have laws to protect them.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 5 months ago

The question in the survey asks if the people will perform poorly and assumes that the employer will also have trouble competing. These 2 measures are separable, they are not guaranteed mutually dependent. There are many positions where obesity is irrelevant to job performance. Retailers employ thousands of people in accounting departments, call centers, IT, etc. If these people are obese, it is irrelevant if they do their jobs effectively. Furthermore, if all employers hire obese people, then no employer has an advantage over any other employer. Most hires are not perfect. Joe Schmo is inexperienced, so he might require more training. Sam Jones is experienced, but he is a job switcher (that’s how he got the experience!). Sally Smith has 5 children so her family’s medical expenses might be higher than average. Rachael Right is courteous and attractive, but she might get pregnant. Besides, most retailers have few or no individual productivity measures, so how do they know which hires are worthwhile?

Jason Brasher
Guest
Jason Brasher
15 years 5 months ago
While I am sure that there is a measure of fact in the research conducted to print this article, I can not escape the feeling that this is a case of crunching numbers to make the point you set out to make before doing the research. I haven’t read the article but I will seek it out now out of morbid curiosity. I could see this type of thinking leading to the next protected class, like we really need more of those. I would encourage any type of legislation to center more on the types of things we do not want as a society such as unfairly paying one employee less than another that has equal or more responsibility. If the employee is producing, they warrant staying and rewards equal to their efforts and work value. The employee that doesn’t produce should be dealt with accordingly, race, sex, weight, or age should not be an issue either way. The unfortunate effect of any legislation that attempts to deal with specific groups usually has a negative… Read more »
Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 5 months ago

Doc, You couldn’t have said it better. I also admire your point taken from Laura Ingraham. There sure is a failure on all of our parts if equal outcome is our objective. When it was once about equal opportunity – it was admirable. It’s no longer the case today.

By today’s standards, discrimination is okay, however, if it’s in vogue to do so. The problem is, who is next?

Esther hecker
Guest
Esther hecker
15 years 5 months ago

Our society is becoming more and more obese. Perhaps obese customers would feel better seeing obese employees. Skinny people might have diseases too…such as undiagnosed diabetes, etc.

Maybe we should screen our employees for sallow complexions and sunken eyes. We might be able to detect illnesses based on the appearance of fingernails.

To keep health costs down, we would also need to see the interviewee’s family. They may have an obese family member who would cause healthcare costs to skyrocket.

I have an obese employee that is so smooth and efficient. A good employee can compensate for other obstacles.

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