Is There Job Discrimination of the Obese?

obesity discrimination

A Facebook friend of mine shared the following with me and asked me whether or not I thought it would make an interesting discussion on the blog. I definitely thought it was worth opening up the discussion. Here is part of the comment:

… It makes one wonder to what degree employers judge potential new employees on body image. I have an overweight friend who dreads job interviews. He is an engineer, his resume is stellar; but when he arrives at the interview, he can tell by the way they look at him that he probably won’t get the job. Not hiring someone based on weight is shallow at best and discriminatory at worst. But a lot of employers don’t want to take the risk of hiring someone who may have major health problems down the road or may not have the energy to, as is printed on most applications…..”fulfill the duties required without special conditions.”

I know firsthand that people do have a hard time separating abilities from appearance. I saw it in my own life and have seen it happen to overweight friends of mine. I have even seen it from the business side with business owner acquaintances who have shared that “I try not to hire overweight people because they are lazy and often absent from work.” (These acquaintances usually do not know my weight loss story.)

There was a small study published in the International Journal of Obesity that asked potential employers to evaluate the likelihood that they would hire women based on their resumes and pictures. The catch was that the pictures showed six different women before and after they had weight loss surgery. In every case the study showed that the obese candidates “received more negative responses on leadership potential, predicted success, likelihood to select, salary, total employment rating and rank order of preference relative to other candidates.”

I am not surprised. The discrimination of the obese is hard to quantify and likely hard to prove. And, in the eyes of the law, obesity is not a protected class. While it is unacceptable to discriminate against people for race, religion, etc., it is often still acceptable to make fun of, and yes, discriminate against people who are obese.

I think part of the reason that employers and other people tend to discriminate against obese people comes from the common stereotypes associated with people who struggle with their weight. I wasn’t lazy, but I suspect people thought I was. I was still as intelligent as I was before I gained 150 pounds, but I wonder if people still saw me as intelligent once I weighed more than a football player. I didn’t have medical problems associated with my obesity, but I can see an employer assuming that I would cost them more in terms of medical payments and fees.

I don’t think that discrimination is right in any form. It hurt my feelings when I saw people treating me differently than they did before I gained weight, and I suspect I would have had a harder time finding a job as an obese, 300+ pound person than I would have as a regular-sized 150 pound woman.

Have you seen discrimination against an obese person or been a victim? Diane

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

53 thoughts on “Is There Job Discrimination of the Obese?

  1. Harry says:

    I’ve been discriminated for my weight in the past. They even told me that the reason I wasn’t getting the job was because my weight would stop me from making the sale 🙁 It’s really bad, but it definitely happens more then we probably believe.

  2. blackhuff says:

    I don’t know the labor law in the USA but here in South Africa, you may ask his/her previous employers about the potential candidate’s attendance to the company. In other words, how much he/she was sick or absencent from work. But I do also think that some people do judge on first impressions. Sad but true. Fair, no not at all.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think you can ask a previous employer about that but they aren’t obligated to provide that information. In some cases all they will tell you is confirm the person’s dates of employment, confirm their last salary, and indicate whether they are eligible for rehire.

  3. Dr. J says:

    For the majority of jobs, there is no reason to not hire people who are obese. For some jobs, the physical must be taken into account because of the skills that are required.

  4. Laura says:

    My sister is in human resources for her company and she said that she sees supervisors who find it really, really hard to overlook the size of a potential employee. She also said there is a real concern about absenteeism and health care costs for obese people and for smokers.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I can see it from the business side as well as from the side of the obese/overweight person. There are real costs associated with obesity, especially as the obese person ages.

  5. MaryAnn says:

    I’m almost 350 pounds and I can tell you that it happens. I was very qualified for several jobs I have applied for but I could SEE the look on the interviewers face when I walked in the door. In one case they had to get me a different chair because I couldn’t fit into the chair with arms. I felt like walking out right then but I did my best. I didn’t get the job. The guy who did did not have near the experience I had nor near the weight I carried. 🙁

  6. Martha P. says:

    I think it probably happens. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes without it really meaning too. It is sad that this is the last “okay” reason to discriminate.

  7. Sam says:

    My husband, who is sadly very overweight, says that he does feel it happens to him. Not just with getting a job but with having promotions too.

    I wish that fact would help him get to a healthier weight but it has not so far. I’m doing my best to support him but it’s hard when I see him struggle.

  8. June @ Lose My Fatty Behind says:

    Yes, yes, yes. I am tired of being judged before I even open my mouth. Jobs, cashiers, volunteer work – they all seem to see me as lazy or incompetent because of my weight problem. I am neither.

    Thanks Diane for always being an encourager and for bringing topics like this up.

  9. Maria says:

    I don’t know. It never happened to me even when I was 100 pounds up from now. I wonder if some of it is discrimination and some is perception from the overweight person.

    But now that I’m thinking about it – that study you wrote about does seem to show that there is a bias against people who are heavy.

  10. Kaye says:

    I think it probably does happen but employers should be able to decide whether the person really can do the job or not. In some cases, the person’s weight might really get in the way of their job abilities.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      In the case of the person not being able to do the job because of their weight, then the employer could refuse employment based on that (I believe). However, I feel bad that people who can do the job are often discriminated against solely because of their weight and not judged on their abilities.

  11. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    Yes I have seen it & I have seen it due to just looks too. I just saw a news story about the cost associated with it & how employers are trying to crack down on this – making it even harder for overweight people.

  12. Kim says:

    I think there is. I have seen how hard of a time my brother-in-law (who is very overweight) has had in getting a job on a couple of occasions. Everything always goes smoothly until they call him in for an interview and I think that many places make up their mind the minute they see him based on nothing but his size. I know it is frustrating for him because he is more than qualified for many jobs!!!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I’ve seen this too. Overweight friends of mine will get interview after interview, but rarely get the job. They often feel it is because of their weight. One told me she could just see the disappointment on the interviewer’s face when she walked in the door.

    • Babbalou says:

      Yes, there are many reasons employers discriminate: age, weight, ethnicity, perceived social class or background, sex.

      • Diane Carbonell says:

        You are both right. Some of those are against the law, such as sex, ethnicity, and age but obesity is not a protected class. My friend, who is an HR person, says that although it is not a protected class, she wonders if someday it will become one because of the rise in obesity rates around the country. Then it would be illegal to discriminate against someone who is obese.

      • babbalou says:

        The problem is that it is up to the employee to hire an attorney and go after the employer who is illegally discriminating. I ended up in a very difficult situation when I was 55 years old and my new and very young boss decided to basicaly throw me under the bus so to speak. A friend gave me the name of an attorney who worked in the field. She said I had a strong case and we could probably win, but of course there were no guarantees and her fees were high. I would have needed to give her $10,000 as a retainer to start, the fees would probably end up being very substantially more than that. I just couldn’t do it financially so I left the company. That was the end of my life in corporate America…the point is that even if the law protects you, in reality you may not benefit.

      • Diane Carbonell says:

        You are right. I had a relative lose her job and be replaced by a younger person. At first the company said her job was being eliminated but it turned out they just didn’t want her anymore. She was 66 at the time. She did contact an attorney and although he said she had a strong case, she couldn’t wait the years it may take to reach a settlement, much less pay all the attorney fees required. He did negotiate a slightly better severance package for her, but the whole experience was terrible on her.

  13. Carrie says:

    I haven’t found this to be true, but most of my jobs are not customer-facing. I think that may make a difference. I have found once I get the job some people are uncomfortable with my size. But I try really hard to know that this is their problem and not one of mine.

    The only times I’m aware of being one of the largest people in the company are when I’m trying to fit into a car, chair, or plane seat that’s too small.

    I’m sure descrimination exists, though. I just don’t work in an industry where appearance is all that important.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think you are right Carrie. Being in front of the public may make an employer look at an overweight person a little differently than a “behind the scenes” job. I’m glad you are in a place that respects you for what your abilities are – that’s so affirming!

  14. Siobhan says:

    I think it happens. OTOH I do know (and see) many people in the work force who are obese, so it can’t be that you absolutely won’t get hired if you are obese. I would think it depends on the competition … if there are a lot of people competing for the same job, then things like obesity (or age) will work against you.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are right – obese people get hired all the time. I just feel like they maybe aren’t always the first choice but rather have to take extra steps, be extra qualified, or have specialized abilities to get their name to the top of the pile more often.

  15. GiGi Eats Celebrities says:

    So in the industry that I am in, it’s all about youth. Except apparently I look TOO youthful because I am not booking the jobs I want because I look too young. I mean, I am completely okay with this as looking young is wonderful. However, it doesn’t always help when I start to get antsy because I want/need that full time job I am actively trying to achieve.

  16. Karen Jaffe says:

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that it is possible that potential employers may see an overweight person as being undisciplined, and may feel that will affect their ability to be a good employee. That being said, people are discriminated in all ways when it comes to employers. I was recently turned down for a job because of my age. Even though we were led to believe that experience for the job was important, I found out later that they had hired people under 30 years old. Obviously they had an agenda that I was unaware of. I do realize that this is about weight but discrimination in hiring is a fact of life. You can change your weight (albeit with a lot of hard work), but you can’t change your age, sex, color or disability.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Discrimination is a fact of life, sadly. I’m sorry about your job experience – that is really wrong to be turned down because of age and illegal as well. It can be hard to prove but you always have the option of looking into filing a complain with your EEOC board.

      Those last things you mentioned are protected under the law but obesity is currently not.

  17. Sam Peri says:

    It is really unfair not to hire someone just because of the body image. I believe this is always happening. I know a friend who is always turned down when she applies for a job. It’s really sad. 🙁

  18. Kyra says:

    I think it was Dateline, or one of those other shows that had a hidden camera and sent people in to test that theory. The results were simple: people didn’t like overweight candidates, period. No matter how qualified (even more qualified than the others), the weight said more to them than anyone else. I think that it’s still viewed as acceptable because it’s something we can change. You can’t change your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, but you can lose or gain weight.

    I know that people treated me differently when I was obese, and it’s something I cannot forgive. Even friends and family, it was as if they thought I had lost half my IQ and any credibility in my opinions. But I’ve seen it in other ways too. People thought I was a lot less intelligent when I was a blonde (which I am naturally) compared to how they react since I’ve changed my hair-color. It’s a joke we all know, but it’s bizarre how true it is in out society. The real problem is judging people on their outward appearance, beyond being clean and put together. But is that something we can change? Doubtful. People rely too heavily on their labels and stereotypes, and having to actually make an effort when it comes to others seems to often be asking too much from them.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      People treated me very differently as well. I saw the before treatment and after treatment very clearly. It was very difficult for me to see friends who used to think I was “smart” suddenly act as though my intelligence diminished in direct relation to how big my body became.

      We do judge people based on appearance, although I try very hard not too. And you are right, the general population does seem to feel as though obesity is something that is easily fixed. Plus, being overweight is something we cannot hide.

  19. evilcyber says:

    “Discrimination” always is a big word and when it comes to obesity, begets a question: if discrimination makes people lose weight and live healthier, does it have some justification?

    I am very critical of society’s will to accomodate the obese, as it costs the person and society – a society that, by the way, is much harsher toward smokers, who actually cost less.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I don’t like the accommodations per se but I do feel as though we need to examine potential employees based on abilities rather than appearance. I have been reading that with the new health care laws in the US, employers will be able to charge obese people and people who smoke higher premiums if they do not participate in employer wellness programs.

  20. Marc says:

    Well the military has been discriminating against obese people for decades. We accept that because we want our fighting men and women representing the United States to look like fighting men and women. I think our police force should likewise be fit as well as our firemen. It just comes with some jobs.

  21. Joi @ Rx Fitness Lady says:

    Hi Diane! I have seen it and it is sad. I don’t like discrimination against any group of people for any reason but am particularly aggravated by the job search discrimination. We work really hard in a local organization to get people with physical disabilities jobs and employers often times dismiss them without a fair chance. I try my best to be open minded in my thought process about everything but most people easily take one example of a lazy person that is overweight and apply it to the masses. It is all about changing the way we think and giving value to all people.

    Yes, a very discussion stimulating topic.

  22. Nancy B. Kennedy says:

    I can easily see this issue from the employer’s point of view. And I don’t think we’re necessarily talking about discrimination. I think we’re talking reality. I was recently at a conference where I was giving a talk. Ten minutes after I’d begun, an extremely heavy woman arrived late, apologizing and saying she had difficulty walking. She then took another few minutes to get to a seat and two rows of people had to move their chairs around to let her through. I completely lost my train of thought, not to mention losing minutes of precious time. I later saw the same woman attempt to climb three steps up to a podium, a very slow process. After climbing the stairs, she had to take a minute to recover her breath before she could speak. In a business situation, this is going to add up to a lot of lost time and productivity. Someone might have to leave their desk 10 minutes early in order to get to meetings on time, or be so winded from taking the steps that they need time to recover. Obesity has real physical consequences and real disadvantages in the workplace. I don’t like discrimination and I’m not advocating it, but can you blame an employer for wanting to do everything they can to ensure their business is competitive in this tough economy?

  23. Carol says:

    Years ago when I was working for a retail candy chain I was told to watch the size of the employees I was hiring after I had hired a heavier assistant manager. The district manager’s reasoning? It was a negative connotation to associate the size of the employee with the candy we were selling. It happens all of the time, sometimes not so subtly.

  24. Katie @ thecarbmonster says:

    I’m sure this is true in many instances. I’ve been lucky to never experience this first hand. However, I do know that my weight and body image affects my self confidence. That directly translates to how I present myself to potential employers and how I interact with others. I definitely this makes a difference in how I’m treated and how I work with others.

  25. Tara says:

    It is just too true that employers have a huge upper hand! In a lot of ways it seems like who ever has the most money to throw at a lawyer will win the case.

  26. Lee says:

    I have seen it first hand. Unfortunately some people make first impressions on the way someone looks and the weight they are. Once made if you are going for a job it is then hard to turn that first impression around however hard you may try.
    Great insight lee

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