The Impact of Weight Bias on Talent Management

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We are subject to as many as 188 cognitive biases  at any given time. Nearly every judgment we make is influenced by one or more of these inherent biases, affecting both our thoughts and actions every day of our lives.

Our struggle with bias is basically the result of how our brains work. According to business and organizational change consultant Sylvana Storey, bias “happens automatically, is outside of our control, and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences.”

We’re neurologically hardwired to prefer people who look, think, and sound like us. Bias doesn’t make us bad people; it’s just part of the human experience. However, we do need to be aware of where and when our biases show up if we want to mitigate any of their negative consequences — especially when managing talent.

Weight Bias is Real

The prevalence of obesity around the world has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight, 650 million of whom were obese.

Sadly, there is clear evidence that weight bias exists in the workplace. Overweight employees are stereotypically viewed as less competent, lazy, and lacking self-discipline. These judgments can negatively impact overweight employees’ salaries, promotions, and employment statuses.

In fact, in a recent survey  of obese people by the World Obesity Federation, 62 percent of respondents said overweight people were likely to face discrimination. For comparison, 60 percent of respondents said people were likely to face discrimination due to their ethnicities, and 56 percent said people were likely to face discrimination due to their sexual orientations.

Even marginally heavier job candidates can face bias in their careers. In one study, researchers doctored a series of photos of male and female faces to make the faces appear slightly heavier. After seeing both the original and doctored pictures, study participants rated the heavier female and male faces to be less hireable than the original faces.

How to Mitigate Weight Bias at Work

To drive meaningful change in this area, decision-makers need to rely less on their gut feelings about whether people “look right for a job” or “should be promoted.” Access to intelligence-driven talent management tools and methodologies can empower hiring managers to make better decisions based on jobs data, insights, and intelligence across three fundamental aspects of the talent management process:

1. Recruiting and Hiring

HR organizations can make unbiased hiring and salary decisions through blind recruiting, in which the candidate’s appearance is obscured or undisclosed. Brilliant Hire and Blendoor both offer solutions that help companies make hiring decisions based solely on a potential candidate’s skills and competencies, rather than their appearance.

In addition, forming a panel of interviewers can reduce the impact of individual biases in hiring. Machine learning can also eliminate biases in determining new-hire salaries by algorithmically recommending equitable compensation according to market dynamics and the level of difficulty to fill the relevant role.

2. Performance and Goals

Companies can use 360-degree feedback processes to reduce the influence of a single person’s unconscious bias. In a 360-degree approach, multiple people are rating an employee’s performance with fairness and equity, so any one rater’s biases will be mitigated by the presence of additional raters. Companies can also use continuous performance management methods to encourage more frequent, job-related feedback based on accomplishments tied to goals.

Plus, calibration tools can help managers categorize employees fairly and accurately. By plotting employees according to their performance and potential, managers can pinpoint top contributors and give them the greatest rewards and opportunities. They can also detect whether bias is influencing performance reviews by performing photo-less calibrations.

3. Succession and Development

To develop and promote the best talent without bias, mentoring programs should match mentees with appropriate mentors based on skills, competencies, capabilities, and the experiences they desire to gain, instead of demographic similarities. Companies should also train mentors and mentees on supportive supervision, accurate performance assessment, and how to work beyond unconscious bias

Tackling weight bias throughout the talent management life cycle is a key business imperative that must be integrated into diversity and inclusion strategies and programs. By equipping their workforces with tools to identify and mitigate bias, bring diverse talent into the organization’s social structure, and encourage contributions and ideas, companies can support inclusive cultures and create lasting employee engagement for all.

Tamara Phillips is the global marketing director for the Business Beyond Bias initiative at SAP SuccessFactors.

By Tamara Phillips