Don’t Let Them Eat Cake: Bosses Sugar-Shame Office Treats

By Rolfe Winkler   Sept. 17, 2018 10:42 a.m. ET          

           Most mornings, Jamie Glass starts work fueled by a Starbucks  venti mocha, turbocharged with two pumps of toffee-nut syrup. Her lunch is sometimes four chocolate chip cookies.

The 55-year-old marketing consultant loves sugar. Her boss hates it.

Cody Broderick, 38, would like Ms. Glass and the rest of the office to snack on the organic fruits and vegetables he sets out. Rather than an afternoon coffee break, the head of in What Language LLC, a translation service in Salt Lake City, recommends a short sprint around the office or a set of push ups.

“Oh my God, I can’t get rid of these people!” said Ms. Glass. She left a boss in New York City who also wanted to cap the office sweet tooth.

Most employees like the free doughnuts, cake and other confections that get parked “in the usual place” at work. But exploding rates of obesity and diabetes make sugar more like cigarettes to some employers. Tempting treats are the new secondhand smoke.

The rules at Health IQ in Mountain View, Calif., sounded pretty sour when they went viral earlier this year: “There is no sugar, candy bars, soda (diet or otherwise) allowed in our office. If you bring some it will get thrown away.”

Chief executive Munjal Shah said the rules, more flexible than they sounded, were relaxed after the social media outrage. The company, however, still wags a finger at secondhand sugar.

“Don’t tempt me with your kids’ leftover chocolate cake,” said Mr. Shah, who leads a startup that sells cut-rate life insurance to health-conscious buyers.

The shaming goes both ways. Hy-Deia Walker, 24, who works in development at a nonprofit in New York, said the amount of sugary treats in her office is overwhelming. Every birthday is celebrated with a cake, she said, and there are always leftover cookies and sugary snacks after client meetings.

Refuse a cupcake, Ms. Walker said, and some co-workers “give you a look like you’re being dramatic.” On her own birthday, she brought in a fruit plate. Colleagues arrived with a red velvet birthday cake. Ms. Walker cut herself a tiny slice, she said, and deliberately forgot to take home leftovers.

At in What Language, staffers fall into a similar divide. “The sales people are more on the healthy side, and the project management team wants doughnuts,” said Cyle Adair, director of business development. He keeps almonds and protein bars by his desk.

Abel Atwater, director of project management, described his colleague as “a health nut who eats rabbit food.” Mr. Adair said Mr. Atwater is nicknamed “Charleston Chew Man,” after the old-timey candy bar with the nougat center.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the first national study looking at the food people get at work. No surprise that a lot of the workplace food was free, with much of it high in so-called empty calories from sugars and fats.

U.S. taxpayers spent roughly $660 each in 2016 treating obesity-related illnesses covered by Medicare and Medicaid, according to estimates by Adam Biener, assistant professor of economics at Lafayette College.

Office crackdowns, though, can’t keep workers from their fix. Jennifer Rice, 47, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, said that after the hospital banned the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks, colleagues discovered a fully stocked vending machine in the basement of a nearby office building.

Workers at the Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis began frequenting this vending machine in the basement of a nearby office building two years ago, after the hospital banned the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks.

The University of California, San Francisco, took a more circuitous path. In 2015, Well-Being Services Executive Director Leeane Jensen persuaded more than two dozen food outlets at the hospital and across campus to stop selling sugar-sweetened drinks. Going along were such franchises as Subway, Panda Express and Jamba Juice, which stopped selling juices that weren’t all fruit- or vegetable-derived.

The nearby Starbucks resisted. “Our menu is designed to reflect a range of choices from wholesome to indulgent, which allows customers to make nutritional choices that are right for them,” a company spokeswoman said.

At UCSF’s Jamba Juice on a recent Sunday, employee Anthony Patchill said he has warned customers from ordering a Protein Berry Workout smoothie. His location uses only unsweetened soy milk.

“It just tastes like nothing,” Mr. Patchill said.

Not all of the sugar-shaming stems from concern about worker health or the well-being of customers. Sometimes, it is to help the boss avoid calories.

Rudy Chung, 41, a partner at two small music companies in Los Angeles, told employees to please avoid their afternoon runs to the baked goods store next door after too many sweets piled up at the office during last year’s holiday season. The initiative didn’t last. “It was probably me that caved,” he said.

Another boss, Erin Wynn, 52, said it was tough to stay healthy leading a 50-person team of mostly millennials at WeLocalize Inc. in New York City.

Everywhere she looked. Ms. Wynn said, were bowls of candy, leftover cake and “bagels, bagels, bagels.”

She finally told workers in 2014 to stop. “I don’t care if you have it yourself, just don’t put it all over the office,” she said. “I can’t help myself.”

One of her employees at the time was Ms. Glass, now working for inWhatLanguage. After hearing the boss’s order four years ago, Ms. Glass recalled, she sped to the aptly named Black Market nearby for a stash of candy.

Write to Rolfe Winkler at rolfe.winkler@wsj.com