Obesity and How it’s Affecting the Workforce

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closeup of women hands unable to close the pantsEmployee relations and EEO work to solve workplace conflict and they deal with discrimination so that it doesn’t have to go to court. However, times and stereotypes are changing; the growing number of overweight (Body Mass Index, BMI, of 25 to 29.9) and obese (BMI of 30 or more) working professionals deal with workplace discrimination and workplace bullying. But is it really discrimination if the employer feels they can’t do their job to meet requirements or quotas?

In the United States…

health professionals consider 34.9 percent of adults obese. What’s astonishing, however, is that 52 percent of these individuals feel as though they have been discriminated against in the office. That discrimination goes deeper than just comments made at work, employees who have a BMI of 30 or more are paid significantly less on average than their “normal-sized” coworkers. Employers pay obese men over $4,000 less than the statistically fit employee. Women? Obese women, on the other hand, experience twice the pay cut due to size at almost $9,000 less than their size 8 counterparts.

The United States is just one of many western nations that is trying to answer the question “is obesity grounds for disability?”  The European Court of Justice recently heard the case of a man who was unable to fulfill his job description as a child caretaker due to his weight. His 350 lb. disposition prevented him from tying the shoelaces of the children. Audrey Williams, a London Lawyer, says that obesity would have to be treated like any other disability, preventing job dismissal because of a person’s weight.

“Obesity, however it will come to be defined, would need to be approached just like any other physical or mental impairment, preventing an employer from treating an employee less favorably. This would include the ability to dismiss. Access to the office and seating arrangements may have to be reviewed. Might obese employees need preferential access to car parking?”

Should Weight Be Included?

So to follow guidelines with anti-discrimination laws, an employer can’t reject or hire a candidate simply for their appearance. This includes gender, age, race, color… but not weight. Even after an employee is hired, some employees face weight discrimination, even if they aren’t obese. Last year, Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel & Casino faced a lawsuit by one of their cocktail waitresses, or “Borgata Babes.” The women are put on a probationary period if they gain more than 7 percent of the weight they were hired at and were required to participate in regular weigh-ins to access their stature maintenance. However, the judge ruling the case found no violation of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

In June 2013, The American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease. So, this means there is more room for legal prosecution of those who practice discrimination based on a candidate’s or employee’s size. Some cities see this particular type of discrimination as a real problem, making efforts to deter the issue from entering the courtroom for the sanity of their citizens. Santa Cruz, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Binghamton, New York all protect employees with anti-discrimination laws that include weight discrimination. However, unfortunately, they seem to be the only ones doing so, as other cities are not following suit.

A Growing Problem

These cities recognize the problems that weight discrimination and bullying cause for those who are medically obese. According to a study by PLOS One, a scientific journal, those who are victims of weight discrimination are 2.5 times more likely to become obese, furthering their issues with bullying. The study continued to say that the stigma and discrimination are the stressors for those who are overweight, and they tend to be chronic. Weight shaming, bullying and discrimination have long been thought to be a means of motivation for those who are struggling with their size, but for many it is a catalyst for a growing problem. 

Obesity, yes, is a health issue over one-third of Americans struggle with. But is it something employers should use to discern the quality of a candidate or the effectiveness of an employee?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read more in Discrimination

Sarah Duke is a Content Creator at Red Branch Media, a marketing and advertising firm that serves the Human Resources and Recruiting markets. Red Branch Media has grown from a simple consultancy to a full-service B2B marketing agency. Duke brings a history of Public Affairs experience to Red Branch and enjoys writing about the HCM Marketplace.
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