Overweight Workers Face Bias in Hiring

By Jeremy Smerd

Sep. 10, 2009

Diversity is the watchword in most workplaces today. But while a wide variation of color, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation is welcome at work, the sentiment frequently doesn’t extend to body size. Overweight and obese people face significant challenges when it comes to getting jobs and moving up the corporate ladder.

“It’s all about image and how you present yourself,” says Jim O’Connor, a public relations executive who is writing a book about how “people unlucky in looks” find success in the workplace. “Looks are very important in the corporate world.”

At a recent job fair in Michigan, which is the only state to have laws protecting workers against weight-related discrimination, Andrea Mucci Bjorklund, 35, felt that just such a scenario was being played out.

She was told by potential employers that good health and appearance were needed to land the job. After an interview did not lead to an offer, Bjorklund, who went from 130 pounds in her 20s to 260 pounds after years of night school, bad eating and little exercise, sensed her weight was to blame.

“I never used to have this problem,” she says. “I used to be extremely thin. I never experienced this kind of turn-away when I was less experienced and thinner. I think there is some discrimination against me being heavy, though it could all be perception.”

Bjorklund, like others, says she feels slighted. Unable to prove anything, she dismissed her feelings as paranoia.

Two recent studies, however, suggest that such prejudice exists, especially against obese women. In an unpublished study, researchers at the University of North Carolina asked about 900 people to evaluate the competency and intelligence of a male and a female lawyer, whose identical closing arguments were attached to a picture that was visually altered to make the lawyer look either obese or of average weight.

Asked to rate the intelligence and persuasiveness of the lawyer they saw, participants overwhelmingly said the thin man was the most influential, followed by the obese man, the thin woman and, lastly, the obese woman.

“Obese workers are going to be perceived as less intelligent and therefore will be listened to less and their ideas will not be carried out,” says Heather Gordon, the study’s lead researcher.

As Gordon’s study suggests, overweight women face greater challenges in the workplace than do overweight men. Researchers writing in the journal Equal Opportunities International concluded that obese and overweight women were “significantly underrepresented” among female CEOs at Fortune 1,000 companies. (Though there are only 28 female CEOs at Fortune 1,000 companies, the journal’s editor, Mustafa Ozbilgin, says that “it is possible to make an assessment based on this number.”)

Overweight men, however, were more prevalent among CEOs than among the population as a whole. Obese men were underrepresented. While other factors may be involved, the researchers concluded that “weight discrimination appears to add to the glass ceiling effect for women.”

While the term “weight discrimination” is bandied about, it is a concept with little legal foundation. No federal law exists to protect workers who are discriminated against on the basis of weight, says Ramona L. Paetzold, a professor at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Obese workers are also unlikely to be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Courts have been very limiting in their willingness to consider even morbid obesity as something that could be considered a disability,” Paetzold says.

Ultimately, this ambivalence has helped protect employers. “It’s not clear that discrimination based on weight is illegal,” Paetzold says.

A review of several obesity-related discrimination lawsuits shows that the courts, like much of society, appear to view obesity as a lifestyle choice, like smoking, rather than a more complex set of issues. Just ask Mark Blei, who lost 250 pounds but remembers how he was treated when he weighed in at nearly 400.

“It’s looked upon as the biggest personal failure there is,” he says.

Workforce Management, August 17, 2009, p. 26Subscribe Now!

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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