Thursday, January 28, 2010

Whole Foods announces BMI-based employee discount program. Seriously?!

This is NOT ok.  Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has announced in a letter to all store employees that they can increase their employee discount from 20% to 30% by meeting certain health measure criteria.   Those health criteria include not smoking, having certain cholersterol levels, and having below a certain BMI.

Jezebel points out that these health indicators are necessarily under the employee's control, and therefore an inappropriate basis for an incentive package.  Moreover, they may violate discrimination laws.  Moreover moreover, they're based on medical information that should be confidential, lest an employer decide to drop you because you're too expensive to insure!

Just how bad is it?  Let's look at the completely inappropriate standards:
That's right, to be in the platinum rankings, you have to have less than a 24 BMI.  Now, I consider myself a healthy individual, but I do not have less than a 24 BMI.  Neither do most of my friends.  Who does have that low of a BMI?  People who have naturally slim builds, diet a lot, or work as a fashion model.  Is there an extra prize for being anorexic?  Just asking.

More of my ranting, and the full John Mackey letter and promotion poster after the jump.

Look, I'm all for employers encouraging their employees to be healthy.  I'm all for discounted gym memberships, team-member jogs, treadmills in the break room, whatever lights your candle.  What is not ok is discriminating against people based on protected characteristics such as physical appearance and race (African Americans have naturally higher blood pressure, one of the criteria).  As for employer weight-loss challenges, it's one thing when these programs are employee-generated, such as workplace weight-watcher groups which sometimes feature cash prizes, but completely another when they're employer-run, company-wide, and tied into your core compensation package.  That's right, store discounts are part of an employee's compensation package, and this is employee compensation being scaled (no pun intended) by weight.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is insane.  Pure and simple.

And forget about the actual legal implications of paying people differently based on weight, what about the environment this fosters for heavier employees, who no doubt already face their fair share of workplace discrimination?  I worked as a grocery store cashier during high school, and got to know many interesting characters. One of them was a woman I'll call Meg, who was very heavy.  She was also one of the best employees of the store.  Want to have a contest to ring up more items per minute?  Meg was there.  Pop quiz on names of produce items?  She was sure to win.  Want to challenge employee's to put more items per bag?  Meg's lane was sure to be the best.  She tried to lose weight, but told me her doctor had said not to worry too much about it, all her other health indicators were good.  This promotion just makes me think of how left out Meg would feel knowing she could never acheive the extra savings being offered by the program.  She might be able to lose 10 pounds, even 20.  But getting below a 30 BMI (the highest to get any benefits) just wouldn't be realistic for her.  It takes years to lose that much weight healthily.  This program wasn't for her.  She would know it, and her skinnier co-workers would surely know it too.  Is that a workplace environment we think is desirable?

Whole Foods has really crossed a line with this one.  I hope they'll come to their senses and cancel this program long before the legal woes stack up and the psychological damage to their employees sets in.


  1. This is absolutely and undeniably terrible, and outright discrimination!!!! Your BMI and cholesterol levels are not *purely* under your control, and I don't think it should be legal to base some kind of "employee reward" program on characteristics you can't control. But it doesn't surprise me one bit, since it goes perfectly along with John Mackey's philosophy and view on the whole health care debate.
    It makes me so frustrated when people claim that the health care crisis is purely due to people being unhealthy and overweight in the US. While I don't deny that this is an issue, there are a myriad of factors that contribute to it, and not taking them into account qualifies as a major omitted variable bias problem!

  2. I'm annoyed they think all those are linear. I am platinum in BMI and blood pressure but silver in Cholesterol. So I'd have to take medicine to reduce my healthy cholesterol level to fit their strange standards? That's nuts.

  3. AND, what if someone works out a lot, is very muscular, and therefore has a high BMI? But I don't even want to make the discussion about that, because even if someone is just overweight, eats potato chips all day, and never exercises that is still none of Whole Foods' business and is a completely unreasonable basis for compensation!

  4. I wonder if there are any case studies on health / weight discrimination in hiring. I know this is something that large retailers (or at least one in particular) have tried to do as a rather unethical way of holding down long term healthcare costs. Let me search the interwebs...

  5. So here's something relatively recent and qualitative:


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