Penn State's unwell approach

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Elizabeth Leis Newman
Elizabeth Leis Newman

Of the many questions you hopefully know you can't ask during a hiring interview, a big one is whether the candidate is pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

So why is it okay for Pennsylvania State University to ask this of its employees on a questionnaire?

As the New York Times reported, in addition to asking female employees whether they planned to become pregnant over the next year, other fun questions on the Take Care of Your Health questionnaire from Highmark Health Services asked about workplace stress and marital problems.

Penn State employees were underwhelmed. For one, there was a $100 surcharge tacked on if they didn't do the questionnaire, which was rescinded after the first NYT story ran. Amazingly, some employees also were not reassured by Highmark's comments that the information would be kept private. 

“As an English professor, I think I am having difficulty with your definition of ‘private,' ” one faculty member said to a Highmark Health official during a meeting, according to the NYT. “For me, discussing my reproductive plans with an unknown entity at an insurance company does not constitute private.”

To start, if you are an employer looking at a questionnaire involving the health of your employees, it's a good idea to start by reading and examining the questions, which Penn State more or less admitted it didn't do. Let's not even spend a lot of time on the fact that you would think Penn State would be an institution more focused than usual on rebuilding its image, boosting morale among faculty, and looking out for public relations problems. 

What is a shame about this debacle is that it reflects everyone's secret fears about wellness programs: That it's another attempt to Big Brother your way into getting people to stop smoking, lose weight, lower their blood pressure and reduce their stress. Penn State is not unlike many other businesses in being concerned about rising health insurance costs and embracing wellness programs promoted under the Affordable Care Act. They just went about it in the wrong way.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) are both now on the hunt for better guidance about employee wellness programs. The EEOC held a meeting about in May, but in true government fashion, nothing has formally come out of it yet.

What is safe to do in the meantime, experts believe, is to offer small incentives, like gift cards, for doing the screenings or questionnaires. If you are a small facility, take a moment to evaluate what will work best in promoting the health of your employees. No one is going to object to a fall “walk at work” program, a fruit bowl put in the employee kitchen, free and optional smoking cessation classes, or gym membership rebates. Just stay out of your employees' marriages and their reproductive systems.


Elizabeth Leis Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.