Weight Discrimination in the Workplace

Weight Discrimination in the Workplace

April 29, 2024

April 2024 Letter from the Director

Stigma against people with obesity is pervasive and is often experienced daily by people living in larger bodies. Weight stigma is normalized and is usually justified by those who discriminate against larger people as an attempt to encourage “healthier behaviors” in people with obesity and overweight. However, stigma ultimately causes worse mental and other health outcomes; bias on the port of health care providers can deter patients with obesity from seeking help to manage their weight.

Weight-based stigma is on the rise. Over the last ten years, stigma directed at people with obesity has risen by over 60%.  Stigma perpetuates harmful stereotypes about larger people including that they lack willpower, are lazy, unsuccessful, and unintelligent. These negative assumptions follow people with larger bodies in every facet of life, including their professional careers.

Workplace discrimination that results from false stereotypes against people with overweight and obesity has been well documented through research associating body mass  index (BMI) with income and professional enhancement opportunities. Weight-based discrimination starts before a person even joins a workplace. Research has shown that during the hiring process, recruiters are more likely to categorize job applicants with obesity to be “less suitable” for a job than people of normal weight. For people already working, those with obesity are less likely to be promoted and make less money than people at a normal weight.

Since 2007, prejudice and discrimination based on race and gender in the workplace have fallen while prejudice and discrimination based on weight have not improved. Women face a compound struggle with weight and gender bias in the workplace. The Economist reports that for a woman with obesity, losing 65 pounds has an impact on her salary equivalent to earning a Master’s degree in her area of work. Men who are overweight do not earn less than their normal-weight counterparts.

Weight discrimination in the workplace persists. In most states employees can be fired because of their weight. Michigan is the only state that has passed a law explicitly prohibiting weight-based discrimination and the Washington state Supreme Court has declared that obesity is covered under their anti-discrimination law. Several other states are considering legislation to make weight-based discrimination illegal, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. Several large cities have also prohibited workplace discrimination, including San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, other states have taken steps that legalize weight-based discrimination. Last year, the Texas Supreme Court upheld a ruling disqualifying obesity as a disability if it can be attributed to “lifestyle choices.” This ruling allowed Texas Tech to fire a medical resident with obesity for breathing heavily and sweating during a long and difficult medical emergency. Until more states protect employees against weight-based discrimination with legislation, people in larger bodies will likely continue to be paid less, be passed over for job promotions, and even be fired for their obesity.

Bias at Work

 Adapted from SHRM


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