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Conversations: Fitter Not Fatter

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Former Executive: I don't understand what you sent me. 

Data Scientist: It's the studies on fitness at work making more productive employees

FE: I don't understand. 

DS: They're not accurate. 

FE: Why is this relevant?

DS: It's because your presentation relies on similar studies. 

FE: We have nothing to do with fitness. 

DS: I want to show you why those studies are useless. So let's start with this - do you agree that fitter employees are more productive, happier, and engaged at work?

FE: Sure.

DS: Studies would say that's a pretty good position to take. 

FE: And you're going to tell me why that's wrong?

DS: I'm questioning the value of fitness. The argument is on average, fitter employees are more engaged, have more energy, take less sick days, and get more done.

FE: You just said fitter people get more done.

DS: I did. But that's so you don't bring up the easiest anecdote - listing someone who was out of shape who was a great worker. I'm not taking that avenue. Instead, let's talk about 2nd grade teachers

FE: 2nd grade teachers.

DS: Yes. What is the value of a 2nd grade teacher being fit versus being fat?

FE: Where did fat come from? 

DS: It makes the argument stronger. Fit means relatively healthy. Fat takes it to the extreme. A fat second grade teacher - how is she less productive than a fit 2nd grade teacher?

FE: Maybe in the way she engages the students.

DS: 2nd graders. Basic math - a little bit of writing, and coloring inside the lines.

FE: Fair enough.

DS: The level of work needed is finite. A pleasant demeanor is more important than enhanced productivity. As for sickness, it's actually cheaper for teachers to use their sick days, because teachers can bank sick hours. A substitute is cheaper because a teacher's sick time is more expensive than the time of the sub, and yet the material is still taught. 

FE: Okay - so second grade teachers aren't more productive when they're fit. 

DS: So there's one. How about minimum wage workers? Are they more productive? And before you ask, let's say that physical jobs clearly require some level of fitness. If you don't have to lift 50 pounds over your head, are you more productive with 6% body fat? 

FE: Sure you are. 

DS: No one has ever done that study, but it's cute you think that. What's the biggest cost in minimum wage workers? 

FE: I don't know. Benefits? Heathcare?

DS: That's true as a category. It's not true individually, and age has much more to do with it than weight. The correct answer is scheduling and turnover. It's expensive to hire and train. Losing people creates hardship that causes more turnover. A fit worker can get more done, but what happens when you can get more done?

FE: You want a raise.

DS: You want a raise or a better job. In a very perverse way, being fit and intelligent for a minimum wage job makes you less attractive to the employer. 

FE: That seems doubtful. 

DS: Would you hire a Harvard grad with supermodel looks to work in your warehouse?

FE: Sure I would. 

DS: Would you hire them if you trained them for a month and really, really needed them to stay?

FE: Sure I would.

DS: If you were traveling to Italy, and needed them to work for six months on the job because you weren't going to be home - would you hire them, train them, and just leave assuming they would keep the job? And you're paying them shit wages. 

FE: Depends on why they were available.

DS: ...

FE: Okay, probably not.

DS: We don't talk about it much, but you hire people for their longevity. You wouldn't hire a sales manager with 3 month stints at five companies, and you wouldn't hire a CFO whose tenure only lasted a year. When it comes to many jobs, you hire people with less options because they stick around. 

FE: That is a terrible view of hiring.

DS: It doesn't have to be conscious, but it is a feature of the system. "Why do you want this job" and "Where do you see yourself in five years" both address this question.

FE: What does this have to do with 6% body fat?

DS: First, don't be sexist. It's very difficult for women to get to 6% body fat. 

FE: Those were your numbers. 

DS: It was the context. Speaking of which - we've addressed minimum wage and we've addressed teachers. So we can both agree that there categories of workers where fit vs fat is not only relevant, it can be detrimental.

FE: With exceptions, but yes, there are categories of workers who don't fit that model. 

DS: Then without going into every category, we can say there are probably other categories, where it is not true, but the studies we have don't break down performance by category.

FE: They don't.

DS: They rely on averages. 

FE: Yes. On average, a fit worker costs less and does more than a fat worker.

DS: So an average company, hiring average workers...

FE: No, no - you're going with average workers - and then saying above averages companies don't do this. An above average company would hire more fit people because, on average, more fit equals more productive. 

DS: One, that's ageist. More fit, on average, is code for younger. And when you have a study that says younger people are better, it's almost entirely a function of searching for ways to justify lower wages. Second, the data does not support your conclusion. You can't create an average of workforce performance and then claim the benefits. That's not how data science. 

FE: Then why do they do the studies? 

DS: It's the only data they have, and it supports a narrative that lowers wages because fitness is code for younger.

FE: That...that is a huge leap.

DS: It's not that big. It's part of another pattern we see in terms of HR data. Whenever you use averages to create policy, you can be assured that the data is shallow, and does not reflect the real world. You should never make policy decisions on human beings based on averages of performance. They have no value but to support a narrative. 

FE: Who exactly is creating the narrative? 

DS: That's another discussion. I don't want to get into Joseph Campbell, but every story has to support an existing power structure. Studies using averages of human behavior and performance by definition support the existing power structure. They are blunt tools pushed by the uninformed as a way to create a scientific justification for their behavior.

FE: Okay - I'm going to go. It's an interesting point, but I think it goes off the rails at the end. 

DS: Maybe. Doesn't mean it isn't true. 

FE: What do you weigh these days? 

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