Future of Work

Cappelli’s Column: Less Sex, More HR?

A new study reports a potential sex recession and some argue HR and organizations need to step in. Here’s my take.

By Peter Cappelli

This is my first column with HRO Today, and we are off to an auspicious start.

A story in Forbes reports that we are in the midst of a “sex recession”—people having less sex than in the past—and that this is getting increasing attention from business and HR executives. Just for fun, let’s assume all this is true, and if it is actually getting attention from HR, let’s speculate as to why.

I’m sure some of you creative people are assuming that this is a demand from employees for a new employee benefit: sexual relations provided by your employer. We already have dental plans and gym memberships, why not? Imagine negotiating the terms of a deal with sex providers. Fortunately, it’s not that. How about subscriptions to Tinder or Grinder? Not that, either.

No, the claim is that because sex generates more positive emotions, people who are having less sex are less confident, have lower self-esteem, and so forth. Previous claims asserted that for leaders, this could be a bad thing and change the way they manage. From there, we go to possible effects on teams: lower motivation and engagement, less empathy and collaboration. Then we get to the good part: What we should do about this? (Nothing – how about nothing??) No, employers should respond with increased efforts at team-building, wellness-related support services, and basically every good practice you’ve heard for supporting employees.

I did check, and this was not the April Fool’s addition.

Let’s unpack all the things wrong with this argument and then get to the bigger implications. First, the evidence on declining sexual activity is mainly about teenagers, which is something most of us (except teenagers) are more likely to applaud than worry about. This might not even be a “thing” among the ages of our typical employees.

Second, an average trend in the population says nothing about what is happening to our employees: A statement that Americans are getting taller does not mean that each of us is getting taller. Don’t start swapping out your wardrobe. If it was the case that overall Americans are having less sex, the fact that young people are having less would be enough to drive the overall average down.

If you were really worried about your employees having less sex, wouldn’t you need to find out? Imagine adding those type of questions to your pulse surveys and what it would do to the response rate. If employees would actually tell you, you would certainly find that some are having none, some are having a lot. So why waste your efforts on those who are doing fine? Start affinity groups among the sexless.

Third, the claim that people who are having more sex are more confident, have higher self-esteem, and so forth is a correlational result. It is just as likely that people with those attributes are more likely to have more sex rather than the other way around.

Now we get to the general point. Claims like this one—that HR should respond to declining rates of sexual relations in the overall population—are a main reason people make fun of HR. They are not something anyone is asking for, they are far removed from the main interests of the employer, and the ability to actually affect meaningful change is virtually impossible.

Employees have many real problems that relate directly to what their employers are doing, some of which are everyday issues such as lack of development and promotion prospects, and some are new, especially increased stress from work demands and the returning fear of layoffs. We know those matter, and affect employees and job performance. That’s where employees really need our help. Most HR departments are extremely constrained by resources so put your attention on what really matters.

For some reason, HR gets caught up and distracted by claims about what might be happening in the overall population, especially demographic issues that may not even be real and about which HR has no control. For example, claims in previous decades about a shortage of people to become workers, generational differences for which there is no evidence, and so forth. Sometimes our business leaders hear these claims and want responses, but our responses as our employer’s experts should be: “Don’t worry about them. We are focusing on what really matters.”

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the The Wharton School. 

Tags: May 2024

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