James Zervios recounts the story of a woman who was told she needed to lose weight to keep her job. She was a flight attendant who couldn’t buckle the seat belt on the plane’s jump seat.
“She was told if she did not lose enough weight to buckle the seat belt without a seat belt extender, then she would be terminated,” Mr. Zervios said.
As director of communications for the Obesity Action Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Zervios deals with weight-based discrimination a lot. He has worked with people who claim they weren’t promoted because of their weight. Others allege they were fired because of their inability to perform certain tasks. About once a month, he’ll get a call from someone who has been stigmatized at work because of their weight.
“Unfortunately, weight bias is alive and well,” Mr. Zervios said.
Research supports that conclusion. Heavier employees are more likely to lose their jobs or be passed over for positions than their thinner counterparts, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.
“I think what’s safe to conclude is that weight discrimination occurs at every stage of the employment cycle from getting hired to getting fired,” said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center. “What we see in experimental studies, for example, is that hiring professionals are less likely to hire an overweight candidate as opposed to a thinner candidate with the exact same qualifications.”
In fact, she added, an employer would rather hire a thin person who is less qualified for a position than an overweight person who is more qualified, especially for jobs where a lot of social interaction with clients is expected.
A 2008 Rudd Center study of more than 2,800 Americans found overweight adults were 12 times more likely to report having experienced weight-based employment discrimination than thinner persons. Of the study’s participants, 60 percent experienced at least one occurrence of employment-based discrimination due to weight issues.
More than one-third of American adults are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some experts believe discrimination on the basis of weight stems from idealistic beauty standards. “In general, more attractive people are viewed as having a number of positive traits, which reflects employment decisions,” said Mark Roehling, a professor at the School of Human Resources and Labor Resources at Michigan State University.
Others believe weight-related incidents can happen to anyone, even those who don’t fit the typical overweight criterion.
“A person does not need to have an extremely high body-mass index to experience discrimination and bias. Even those who aren't obese are being teased about their weight,” Ms. Puhl said. “Certainly, they’re much less likely to experience bias and stigma than a person who is overweight, but it doesn’t make them immune.”
There are few legal options available in these cases. A state law against weight-based discrimination has been passed in Michigan. Other similar measures have passed in cities such as San Francisco.
But currently there are no federal laws preventing the practice, which might be a reason it is often overlooked, Ms. Puhl said. “Because there is no legal recourse, people don’t come forward,” she said.
Some experts think employers should do more to address the issue, but others argue they could cause more damage than good.
“We notice employers will implement some type of plan they think will address the issue, but in reality it stigmatizes those who are overweight or obese. We’ve seen cases where companies would place a monetary penalty against someone who’s BMI fell in the obesity range,” Mr. Zervios said. “Basically, the employer penalizes employees who have obesity and yet do not offer any type of effective workplace wellness program.”
The Obesity Action Coalition offers a weight bias guide for those trying to stop weight-based discrimination in their workplace that offers suggestions on how to improve working conditions for such individuals. Ideas include creating a supportive environment and setting realistic, attainable weight goals.
Madasyn Czebiniak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak.