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LESSON LEARNED

The story behind the health-conscious startup accused of being a “fit supremacist”

Triathletes prior to the swim i
AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
Team meeting?
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Mistakes were made in the creation of a Silicon Valley startup’s careers page and job ads. And the internet was unforgiving.

The startup, Health IQ, is a life insurance brokerage that provides low rate coverage for health conscious people. The critique included charges that the company was cultish, and a “fit supremacist,” after some descriptions of the culture, which dripped of “bro” values, were discovered and shared.

“Every employee who joins takes a pledge to celebrate the health conscious while they work here and for the rest of their life,” the Mountain View, California-based company boasted on its careers page, which has now been edited. And that was just the beginning. Other snippets on the page originally read:

  • We don’t have a pool table. Instead we have a gym in the middle of our office. Not in a side room, not in a corner, it is right in the middle of the entire office.
  • There is no sugar, candy bars, soda (diet or otherwise) allowed in our office. If you bring some it will get thrown away.
  • We all leave at 5pm/6pm so we can go to the gym, eat dinner at a healthy hour, and see our kids before they go to sleep. After 8pm/9pm we get back online and take care of tasks, if needed. Self management is key and required.

Even the conference rooms are designed as tiny gyms, the company said—four treadmill desks face each other “so you can do a walking meeting while seeing a presentation, rain or shine.”

But perhaps the most obnoxious bit was this:

“We believe winners have always won. All candidates will be asked to submit a ‘brag sheet’ as part of our interview process. This is a listing of every accomplishment you’ve ever had. If you won the spelling bee in the 2nd grade we want to know about it, etc.”

Twitter wasn’t having it. People took to social media to express their disgust with what appeared to be the promise of a corporate nanny state twisted by an obsessive Darwinist mentality.

On Ycombinator, user s_kilk wrote: “Who in their right mind would want to work with a cult of fit-supremacists.” Many pundits asked whether this was actually a parody, or a publicity stunt, while other critics were more earnest: “Health (physical and mental) comes from a good balance of activity and rest. How do you support rest?,” Twitter user Chiara Woolford asked in a tweet.

The back story

Health IQ blames poor and provocative language choices for the flap. When Quartz called the company, we reached a co-founder and CEO still reeling from the storm. It’s been “painful, really hurtful,” Munjal Shah says.

The company depicted online was not at all what he’s been creating, Shah claims, pointing to positive Glassdoor reviews as proof that employees are not suffering in a brutal, Survivor-esque atmosphere. “The page was written badly. We have only have ourselves to blame for that,” he says.

Shah, who has a record of success with previous startups (one was eventually acquired by Alibaba and another he sold to Google) also says that some context had been stripped away from the company’s message that would have better explained his policies and recruitment strategies.

The entire idea for Health IQ occurred to him following his own health scare, described on the site in his company bio. In 2010, at age 37, he was hospitalized with chest pains after running a 10k race. His father had suffered his first heart attack at age 45. Shah overhauled his diet and exercise habits, studying nutrition and food’s relationships to diseases and to metabolic syndrome and its related disorders, like heart disease and diabetes.

In 2013, he co-launched Health IQ and began gathering data about people who watch what they eat and exercise regularly, first with the goal of making a health IQ quiz. (His co-founders also had health issues in the past. One lost 50 lbs. and got rid of his migraines and the other lost 120 lbs.)

The data they collected inspired the creation of an insurance firm through which “health conscious” people—like many runners, or avid walkers, vegans, and vegetarians—would pay lower rates.

To Shah, prioritizing “health consciousness” is inclusive, because it’s a relative measure, one that he says shouldn’t be conflated with competitive bro culture.

“There are the cards you’re dealt, and you can’t really control that, and then there’s how you play those cards, and you can control that,” he says. ”If you’re a well-managed diabetic, you’re a hero.”

So he doesn’t apologize for the proclamation about taking a pledge to celebrate the health-aware—but let’s now turn to rest of the text that the internet found so offensive…

“We believe winners have always won.”

This one makes Shah audibly groan. He claims he doesn’t know where it originated. Someone was trying to be clever and succinct, he suggests. Big fail.

That said, the company does request a list of accomplishments, or a “brag sheet,” from its applicants, but that’s because managers want to know what someone is capable of doing, not whose coattails someone has been able to ride. You’ve worked at Google or Facebook, says Shah, “but what did you do at those places?”

Too often, he argues, the resumes he sees simply reflect people’s networks or the privilege they’ve had that got them into an impressive school, which naturally led to them having contacts at big, successful tech companies. The whole resume system, he believes, is not kind to minorities and people of diverse backgrounds. Asking for a “brag sheet” is Health IQ’s way of seeking out those people who haven’t had the same “success by association,” but can still demonstrate that they’ve done remarkable work.

The trashing of sugary treats

Actually, says Shah, employees can eat whatever they want at their desks, but the company does ask that cake or candy be kept out of common areas. This policy was enacted at the request of early employees, some of whom had lost substantial amounts of weight to deal with a health crisis, or have turned to a “real food” diet in recovery from illnesses, including cancer. “For those of us who have lost weight, it isn’t just self control, it’s about the environment,” Shah says. At too many companies, “it’s like Halloween every day.”

To be fair, limiting access to junk food is not that unusual these days. Google employees are also asked to work harder to find the sugar, while fruit and healthy snacks are kept visible. Reebok made a point of banning unhealthy foods within its headquarters in greater Boston.

Nevertheless, Shah concedes that as Health IQ grows, policies like this one may become unpopular, and may need to change.

The pressure to exercise every day

The version of the careers page that blew up online talked up company outings for Crossfit, Bikram yoga, and rock climbing. It also highlighted the exercise machinery in the middle of the office —because that’s a natural place to work out or practice your downward dogs, right?

Shah says frankly that the company outings don’t happen anymore; he wouldn’t be able to find a yoga studio that could accommodate the larger staff, even if he wanted to. And, he notes, the outings were optional, as are the conference room treadmill desks, or the ability to take 30 minutes per day to exercise. For some people, that could mean taking a walk, he says, or taking time out to rest and relax away from work. About 30% of the staff do not make use of the perk, Shah estimates. Some people would rather go home earlier instead, and that’s fine with him. Some people forget their gym clothes and don’t want to get sweaty. There is no sense of being excluded if you choose to opt out for any reason, Shah promises. “You won’t be the only one.”

Shah is puzzled that this company benefit would be scorned, he says, because most employers merely pay lip service to the need to stay active without going out of their way to ensure it’s feasible for employees to work out during the day. At Health IQ, he saw this policy as key to living up to the company’s mission, and says it costs “millions” because it means overstaffing to maintain productivity levels.

“I don’t know how many companies in the world have paid work-out time that you can use however you like,” he says.

Within the office, he clarifies, there are spaces to work out, but they’re also multi-use spaces. “We don’t have a sprawling campus,” says Shah. “We’re a startup.”

“After 8pm/9pm we get back online and take care of tasks…”

Health IQ’s new careers page doesn’t mention this habit, but Shah says that employees do find themselves working more hours than he’d like, and he’s looking for ways to change it. They do not work finance hours of 80 hours per week, he reports, but more like 50.

Having launched startups in the past, he says he’s worked the crazy hours and now has enough experience to know how to be more efficient. His past also means he’s that much more aware of the need for balance.

“We get the importance of this,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean the solution is obvious when you’re a fast-growing startup.”

The danger in well and good intentions

The viral hate-sharing of Health IQ’s careers page sends a loud message: What looks like company overreach, even when to promote “wellness,” is never tolerable to those who see it as overreach. Often it’s only bros who are cool with sharing health stats and personal bests, even as more firms offer insurance discounts for those who demonstrate a healthy lifestyle.

This should probably serve as a warning to others, especially as companies like Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase band together to create a medical care system for their own employees, and as Apple launches its own wellness and medical clinics for staff.

Anti-sugar crusaders and fitness enthusiasts may indeed make some valid points about the typical North American diet and obesity more generally, and about the food giants and drug companies that are cashing in on diseases like diabetes. But there are lessons for those who would make this part of their own corporate mission.

In codifying workplace culture or policies, inclusiveness and compassion have to come ahead of even the most well-meaning agenda. Crucially, any communication with employees and potential hires ought to make that compassion obvious.

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