Oswald Letter

Penn State’s attempt at wellness program didn’t go so well

by Dan Oswald

Penn State University found itself at the center of another controversy when it told faculty and employees they must participate in the school’s new wellness program or have $100 withheld from their paychecks every month.

The wellness program, which required employees to fill out an online wellness profile and visit a doctor for a preventative medical exam before October 8, was met with fierce resistance by employees. The lightning rod in the controversy was the online survey they were required to complete on WebMD.

One reason for the employee objections was the personal nature of some of the questions on the survey, which, in addition to collecting data on height and weight, inquired about feelings of depression, alcohol and tobacco use, and women’s intentions about pregnancy. Making the survey even more controversial was the fact that it was being completed online where employees feared it could be hacked.

Toss in the $100 monthly fine for noncompliance, and Penn State had a growing rebellion on its hand. Some employees practiced civil disobedience by filling out the survey with erroneous information, while others simply refused to answer the questions. And some employees voiced concerns about the impact of the cost of noncompliance on lower-paid coworkers.

After a recent university faculty senate meeting, the school decided to suspend the $100 surcharge and work with employees to find a suitable alternative for implementing a wellness program. All this after the school received a great deal of negative publicity over what certainly came across as a heavy-handed attempt to coerce employees to do something they otherwise wouldn’t.

Where did the university go wrong? Penn State’s handling of this situation provides lessons for managers and HR executives alike.

Employee participation. It doesn’t appear that the leadership or HR department of Penn State vetted this idea with employees. I’ve read of no conversations with employees, no employee feedback on the concept of the wellness program or how it was being administered, or any type of employee task force organized to either help design or communicate the new initiative.

What would the harm have been in including the employees in the discussion? If the program has the potential to do what the university claims—save $63 million in healthcare costs over the next five years—one would believe there would have been a way to gain the employees’ support. Imagine what that $63 million could mean in new programs, additional grants, or better pay for faculty and staff. You can’t tell me those types of dollars couldn’t get the employees’ attention. But first you must ask!

Carrot or stick. Penn State opted for the stick in the form of a $100 monthly surcharge for anyone who didn’t comply with the new wellness requirements. Why not offer an incentive for filling out the survey? If the university was truly going to save $63 million, why not provide a one-time payment for everyone who filled out the survey. Or maybe the school could have offered enticement in the form of lower health insurance premiums if all employees completed the survey within a certain time frame.

By choosing the stick instead of the carrot—punishment instead of reward for compliance—the university made itself the bad guy. The employees who refused to fill out the survey became media darlings. Who doesn’t love a David versus Goliath story? By not thinking things through—by management not putting itself in the employees’ shoes—Penn State came out looking like a bully.

Nobody wins when management is pitted against employees. A wellness program that conceivably could help employees in numerous ways and save the university tens of millions of dollars may never get off the ground because of a couple of bad decisions the school’s leadership made. Why management didn’t build more consensus with the employees before launching the program or chose to punish instead of reward behavior, we may never know. But we can learn from the mistakes Penn State made.