HBR CASE STUDV
by Bronwyn Fryer and Julia Kirby
Sid has put his hat inthe
ring for a client-serving
position. He's got the skills
andtheknowledgethe problem is, he's also
obese. Can his weight
be a factor in the decision?
ILL HouciAN was three pages deep
into his spreadsheet when he felt the
thud, thud, thud through the roughhewn floor of the hallway connecting
sales and marketing with the desktop
publishing group. "Here comes Sid," he
The Seattle offices of NMO Financial Services, charmingly situated in a
quaint old building on a city wharf, were
rather sensitive to the rattle of passing
trucks-and to Sid Shawn's 400-pound
footsteps. The door to Bill's office was
open, so instead of just passing by, the
obese man stopped and looked in.
"How's it going, Sid?" Bill said. He noticed that Sid's face was a bit moist; he
seemed short of breath.
HBR's cases, which are fictional, present common managerial dilemmas
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HBR CASE STUDY • Fat Chance
"Going great," Sid replied, smiling and
giving NMO's VP of sales and marketing
a little salute. "Hey, did Terry happen to
speak with you?"
"Uh, yes," Bill said. "She put your r^sxim^ and everything in the system. I'm
supposed to be interviewing candidates
over the next month or so."
"Terrific," Sid said."Wel], I hope you'll
keep me in mind."
his last review he'd made it clear he was
ready for something new, so it shouldn't
have surprised Bill when Sid applied for
the job that had just opened up.
Still, when Bill got the e-mail from
HR about Sid's interest, he was taken
aback. Sid had applied for a consultant
relations job - where his success, and
not a small portion of his compensation, would depend on impressing the
"That really fat guy?...You're kidding! How can
you even consider it? What kind of impression
would he make?"
"Sure, Sid," Bill responded, tuming to
stare at his computer screen. "I'll keep
He's a good guy. Bill thought, as Sid
continued down the corridor. You can't
blame him for coming by to help his
cause. Or maybe it was the deII tray that
had lured Sid down this hallway? A vendor had treated the production group
to lunch that day, and there were sandwiches and cookies left over for the rest
of the staff. Almost as soon as that notion entered his head. Bill rebuked himself for it. He leaned back and sighed,
not happy about the decision he would
have to make.
A ten-year veteran of NMO and a
mainstay of the pensions marketing
group, Sid had always been a good, consistent worker. As a product specialist,
he was an invaluable resource to the
salespeople who called on chief investment officers, treasurers, and others
making the decisions about employee
retirement benefits for their companies.
Sid was also a resource to the consuitant
relations managers, who tried to influence the people advising those buyers.
At this point, Sid was so steeped in
NMO's products that those colleagues
had come to depend on him to outline
their talking points and pitch books.
Amiable and sometimes funny, Sid garnered above-average performance reviews and regular pay raises. But during
polished professionals at major benefits consultancies. Of course, he'd impressed them many times before-or his
work had while he remained behind the
scenes. But now the consultants would
encounter Sid face-to-face, and that
seemed a different matter.
A Friend Weighs In
Bill pulled his suit jacket from the
hanger on his door and took the stairs
to his friend Chuck Bell's office on the
fourth floor. Chuck, who headed up the
40i(k) sales group, was on the phone,
so Bill lingered in the hallway until he
heard the conversation end. Then he
tapped a knuckle on the doorjamb.
"Hey, Bill,"Chuck said."You don't look
so good. Something you ate?"
"Nah, I just need some fresh air. You
wanna take a walk?"
Chuck immediately stood up and
grabbed his jacket, and they headed for
A rainstorm the previous day had
cleared the sky, and the city seemed to
sparkle. As the two executives walked
together down the wharf, Bill felt less
oppressed. A pelican swooped over them,
soared into the sky, and then dove to
spear the deep blue water in a flash of
"Can I ask you something, Chuck?"
Bill asked, watching the pelican reclaim
the air with its wriggling silver prize.
"If you asked for a promotion and it
was denied, would you leave?"
Chuck's eyes widened. "You're not
hankering after that EVP title..."
" No, no," Bill insisted."This isn't about
me. It's about a guy who works in my
marketing department. He's angling
for the consultant relations job that
just opened up. He's a product specialist now-really good at it,too-but he's
done it for years, and he wants something new. Consultant relations, thoughthat's a mtich more visible job. You
know. It's got its own demands. I'm not
sure he's ready for it."
"Why can't you just try him out on
the job? Can you get someone to work
with him, show him the ropes?"
"Well, there are...some issues," Bill
said. "He has some health problems."
"What kind of health problems?"
"He's diabetic for one thing." Bill
glanced at his friend. "See, he's overweight, and I think that's why-"
"Wait a minute," Chuck said. "You're
not talking about that really fat guy?"
Bill's uncomfortable silence answered
the question. Chuck threw back his head
and laughed."You're kidding! Howcan
you even consider it? What kind of impression would he make for NMO?"
Bill suddenly felt protective of Sid.
"Well, I don't know. He's actually quite
"Oh, no doubt,"Chuck said, grinning.
"You'd probably have to take a crosstown bus to get on his bad side."
Bill gave Chuck a sharp look. "He
knows the products better than just
about anyone else in my group."
"So send him over to new product
development," Chuck suggested.
"Well, he isn't going to make more
money there, is he?" Bill responded.
"He'd quit for sure."
"You think so, huh?" Chuck countered. "Who's gonna hire him?"
Back at his desk. Bill pulled out Sid's
personnel file and began thumbing
through it. His eyes fell on the
Bronwyn Fryer (firstname.lastname@example.org) ar^d Julia Kirby (email@example.com) are both senior editors at HBR.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
Fat Chance • HBR CASE STUDY
HBR CASE STUDY • Fat Chance
He recalled that Sid had already been
on the heavy side when he started at
NMO but nothing like he was now. At
first, people ribbed him about his wife's
irresistible baking; he frequently came
to work bearing trays of chocolate chip
cot>kies to share with his colleagues. Sid
couldn't resist the cookies either; within
two years, he'd gained more than 40
pounds. At one poi nt he went on a crash
their dinner parties. That didn't seem
to happen much any more. The workgroup dynamic cried out for some kind
of intervention, however subtle. "Diversity training of some kind?" Bill
wondered. The thought seemed absurd
when he didn't even feel comfortable
discussing Sid's weight with Sid himself. Bill hated feeling so helpless as a
Sid was outgoing, always happy to strike up
a conversation. But as oid-timers ieft the group
and new hires entered, fewer and fewer peopie
seemed to warm up to him.
diet and lost a lot, but before long, he'd
regained it and more. When his wife left
him, Sid's weight ballooned.
A couple of years ago. Bill noticed
that Sid was calling in sick more. He
hadn't exceeded his allowable days,
but this was a business in which almost
no one did. Eventually, Sid mentioned
that he was battling diabetes, which accounted for at least some of the sick
time. While preparing Sid's semiannual
review. Bill wondered whether to broach
the subject. The precedent he had in
mind was the time he'd confronted Ron
Darcy, an NMO salesman who clearly
suffered from alcoholism. Darcy had
made his numbers and then some, but
there were signs that he was about to
derail, personally and professionally. Bill
liked to think he'd made a difference in
that man's life, awkward as It was at the
time. Still, when it came to Sid's review.
Bill decided it was a conversation that
Since then, even more troubling than
Sid's health was the increasingly oblique
approach people at work took toward
him. Sid was outgoing, always happy to
strike up a conversation. But as oldtimers left the group and new hires entered, fewer and fewer people seemed
to warm up to him. Bill recalled the days
when Sid, particularly after his divorce,
went out with colleagues after work
for drinks, and people invited him to
Just then he had a sickening thought:
If Sid were passed over for the consultant relations job, could he sue the company for discrimination? He thought of
picking up the phone and calling Terry
in HR. Then he realized that merely asking the question made him sound like
he had an issue with Sid's size - like
maybe he was the problem. He stared at
the receiver. Could he even bring up the
The Right Fit?
A taxi was idling outside the office building, and Bill kept checking his watch.
"If we don't get going now, we'll miss
the plane," he thought. Just then, Sid
stepped off the elevator and into the
lobby, pulling a remarkably large suitcase and a smaller bag.
"Let's go," Bill said, holding the door
open. Sid wheeled his bags out to the
cab. Bill climbed into the backseat behind the driver. When Sid eased into the
seat on the passenger side. Bill felt the
"Here's the agenda," Bill said, handing Sid a glossy pamphlet. "1figurebetween the two of us we can hit all the
As Sid leafed through the brochure.
Bill looked out at the gray sky that
threatened more rain. Feeling some
pangs about having excluded Sid from
such things in the past. Bill had invited
him along to a conference in San Francisco. Sid's enthusiasm was much greater
than the event really deserved. Bill realized now that Sid might have seen the
invitation as an encouraging sign that
he was being considered for the job and
that the trip was a kind of test run.
"So Bill," Sid spoke up,"in your opinion, what is the key to succeeding at consultant relations?"
Bill drew a deep breath. "Well, of
course, you know it comes down to
getting recommended for a manager
search," he said. The consultants weren't
in a position to engage NMO directly;
they developed short lists for their clients, who in turn would send out requests for proposals. NMO's consultant
relations managers were assigned to
particular consulting firms and did
whatever they could to get NMO's products on the consultajits' short lists- in
fact, one key performance measure for
those employees was the number of
RFPs received from the companies their
target consultants advised. The consultants were very smart about the industry - more so than most finance executives - so they couldn't be snowed. At
the same time, they were only human.
If they liked you, they might include you
in the beauty contest even when your
returns were only on a par with others'.
"And that means you need to present
the case for NMO's superior portfolio
"I'm pretty good at that," Sid interjected.
"But it's just as much about the
schmoozing," Bill pressed on."You have
to build those relationships, and that
means traveling-more than some people are comfortable with."
"No worries there," Sid said a bit
wistfully. "Bill, I'm very confident 1 can
do the job. What do you think my
"Well, it's hard to say," Bill answered,
not quite meeting Sid's eye. "There's a
lot of talent on the street, what with the
layoffs and mergers. Terry hasn't said
anything about the number of candidates who've applied so far."
"Are there any other internal candidates?" Sid asked.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
Fat Chance • HBR CASE STUDY
"Not as far as [ know," Bill said. The
car in front of them came to a sudden
stop, and the cabdriver stepped hard on
his brakes. For a minute, everything was
at a standstill. Then the traffic began to
inch forward. Bill noted the time on the
taxi's small dashboard clock.
"I was just wondering," Sid continued,
"because the company prefers hiring
internal candidates over extemal ones
if they're equally qualified, right?"
"Charity begins at home," Bill quipped
in response. A sign for the airport exit
loomed. Grabbing at the chance to
change the subject, Bill directed the
cabdriver to Terminal B.
As Bill pulled the bags from the trunk,
he motioned toward the skycap station,
where, fortunately, there wasn't much
of a line. But now it appeared that a
wheel had broken off of Sid's smaller
bag. Sid decided to transfer some ofthe
contents. He bent down uncomfortably,
removed a pair of slippers, a sweater,
and two books, and pressed them into
the larger bag. Bill sourly wondered
how so much stuff could be required for
an overnight trip. Averting his glance.
Bill studied the e-tickets his assistant
had printed out; he noted Sid's two seat
"Well, it's half past, and we've got half
an hour to takeoftV he said, checking his
watch again as Sid slowly stood up. "It's
going to be tight, but we can make it if
They proceeded toward the security
gate, and that's when Bill realized Sid
was incapable of hustling. As Sid shuffled along, a child pointed and called
out to his brother, "Whoa! That guy is
huge!"At the screening station, Sid bent
down again to untie and remove his
shoes-which turned out to be another
very slow process. People stared; Bill felt
embarrassed. "Stuff Uke this must happen to him every day," he thought.
As Sid struggled to put his shoes back
on, an announcement came over the
public-address system: "Last call for passengers Bill Houglan and Sidney Shawn.
Please proceed to Gate 3A."
"I'm gonna run for it," Bill told Sid.
"I'll let them know you're coming.
Please, Sid, hurry up."
Breakfast for Three
If Bill had any doubts about how people
perceive an obese person, they were dispelled on this trip.
On the plane, other passengers were
visibly relieved when Sid didn't head for
their row. When Bill and Sid walked past
the bar in the hotel lobby, two women
stared and then dissolved into giggles.
At the registration desk, the bellman
put on a kind of waxen expression and
pretended not to notice Sid's size. The
conference registrar, looking up from
her list, blinked in astonishment, and
then tried to cover up by being overly
solicitous. "Just as bad," Bill thought.
"He can certainly rely on the unkindness of strangers."
During the late-afternoon break at
the conference. Bill checked in with
Mina, his assistant. "Terry called earlier," she told him."She'd like you to get
back to her right away." Bill had his assistant transfer the call.
"1 just wanted to fill you in on the status of your search," Terry said. "We've
got a woman withfiveyears'experience
on the consulting side and a CFA. She
looks good, and she's in our salary range.
The thing is, she's close to an offer with
Quality Funds. We should get her in fast
if you want to talk to her."
"Do," Bill said. "Anyone else? How
about internal candidates?"
"Just Sid so far," Terry said. "Are you
Bill felt put on the spot. He wasn't
sure how to answer but chose to reply in
the affirmative."I'd like to see if we can
pull in more people, though," he added
quickly. "Definitely leave the posting
on the intranet. Let's see what we get.
Meanwhile, if you give Mina a call, I'm
sure she can find room on my schedule
for that candidate."
After he hung up. Bill thought for a
while about how it would affect Sid if
he didn't get the job. Maybe that would
be best all around. Even with their occasional barbs and social neglect, people
in the office were fairly casual and comfortable with nonconformity. Perhaps it
wasn't the ultimate in heterogeneity,
but the workforce at NMO had its diverse elements.
By contrast. Bill could so clearly picture the challenges Sid faced on the outside; in fact, he'd glimpsed it at this very
In the hallway outside the ballroom,
Angela Betz, a star consultant with Tallan Associates, was holding court as representatives ffom three different fund
managers clustered around her, nodding at her comments and trying to
score conversational points. There was
no denying there was a certain cut to
their jib; any one of them could pass for
a nightly news anchor. Would Sid be one
ofthe people she'd open up to? If not,
the RFPs would go elsewhere. And if the
numbers didn't add up, he'd fail in the
job. Where would he go then?
During the group dinner that night,
Bill noted that Sid fell into a conversation with a man on his right. Occasionally, the man laughed out loud in response to something Sid said, and Sid
seemed pleased. Bill felt less uneasy, remembering how Sid had tumed on the
charm in his early days at the company.
"At least he's having a good time," he
About an hour later. Bill was in his
room checking his messages when the
phone rang. It was Sid.
"Guess what I found out? That fellow
sitting next to me at dinner-his name is
Dick Huff. Tums out he's with the Ohio
Teachers Pension, and he says they're
disgusted with their retums lately. We
hit it off really well. Naturally I worked
in a few comments about our equity
products. 1 told him you were here and
that I'd make an introduction."
Bill was impressed. "Great, Sid. You
should have gone ahead and arranged
to meet for breakfast-"
"Well,that*s why I'm calling,"Sid said.
"I've got his card. I can ring him now, if
you want to set a time."
Smart guy. Bill thought. He's trying
hard to show me he can do the job. And
who knows? Maybe with a fresh start in
a new position, Sid would make a serious effort to lose some pounds.
Should Sid's weight be a factor in
Bill's decision? • Four commentators
offer expert advice,
H B R CASE C O M M E N T A R Y • Should Sid's Weight Be a Factor in Bill's Decision?
Howard Weyers (howardw
@weyco.com) is the president and CEO of Weyco, an
employee-benefits administration firm in Okemos,
f NMO Financial Services has HR policies
that force it to ignore Sid Shawn's habits,
then its problems are much bigger than Sid.
Too many companies implicitly enable the
unhealthy lifestyles ofthe minority - those
who smoke, drink to excess, or otherwise neglect or abuse themselves-and they do so to
their detriment. The real cost here will occur
when NMO pays its insurance premiums.
Why not, instead, consider rewarding the
majority of employees who take a proactive
approach to their own health? If NMO offered its employees incentives to adopt
healthier lifestyles, it might not be facing this
dilemma. More generally, I predict the company would end up paying considerably less
for insurance in the long run. But such incentive programs are rare-which goes a long
way toward explaining why health care costs
in the United States are so out of control.
At my company, we decided to grapple
with the problem of employee well-being
head-on. We provide healthy foods in our
vending machines,as well as health counseling by on-staff medical professionals. We
vate employer, there was no law in Michigan
that prevented us from screening out tobacco
use at the office and during the hiring process, just as employers routinely screen out
drug use through testing. As a first step, we
banned tobacco from the corporate property.
The following year, we instituted voluntary
testing, accompanied by classes and programs designed to assist smokers in quitting.
This year, we instituted mandatory testing
for tobacco use. Controversy arose when four
employees decided they did not want to take
the test, and quit. But we were within our
legal rights to screen out the smokers.
Such 5teps may sound draconian, but they
get results. By making employees responsible
for their own health, and by establishing support programs for them, we have both lowered and stabilized our health care costs.
Our insurance costs per employee-including medical and dental care, and prescription and vision coverage - av ...
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